Book review: Keeping the Bible fresh

The book made the limitations of my stage of life a stepping stone into the texts.

July 24, 2019 18:03
4 minute read.
Book review: Keeping the Bible fresh

A TORAH SCROLL.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

‘What do women have to do with Hanukkah?” asked a clear, loud voice. It had to be loud, because the room was overflowing with babies. Babies crawled, babies slept, yet above it all – above the babbling and the funny little murmurs – the clear voice carried on talking, sharing observations, wisdom and truths.
The voice belonged to Sharona Halickman, and the knowledge she imparted that day felt oddly like a miracle. It wasn’t the ideas themselves that seemed otherworldly – they were far too erudite, concise and logically structured. It was rather the fact that somehow, at a time when parenthood seemed to douse my spiritual needs with sleep deprivation, Sharona made it possible for me to learn Torah.
In her 15 years in Israel, Sharona Halickman has dedicated herself to making Torah available for everyone by founding the nonprofit organization Torat Reva Yerushalayim.
In her new book, Parsha Points: More Torah from the Land of Israel, Halickman achieves the same goals through the written word. Each chapter is short, concise and to the point. Every idea is clearly and carefully delineated. This is not an esoteric book for specialists; rather, it brings the fruits of Halickman’s vast scholarship to everyone in succinct installments that are easy to read, understand and apply. This is Torah for busy people, harried readers, tired parents and anyone else who craves to fit learning into their hectic daily life. Remarkably, she achieves these goals without compromising on the depth and originality of her insights.
Parsha Points focuses on the weekly Torah portions that traditional Jews around the world read every Shabbat in shul. These portions allow us to reread the entire Pentateuch over the course of a year. The word for “year” in Hebrew (shana) is derived from the verb lishnot, to repeat, and indeed, as soon as we complete the Pentateuch we start rereading it, repeating our endeavors year after year. But while the way we read the Torah emphasizes repetition, the content we read conveys a very different message.
Time and time again, the Torah presents the Jewish story as one of innovation and initiative. Abraham was called “Ivri” because he left the accepted beliefs and norms of his era behind him, crossing the metaphorical river to the other (ever in Hebrew) side. The Israelites were later called upon to slay the idols of their Egyptian lords and masters and display the blood above their doors. The covenant in Sinai invited them to enter a new kind of relationship with the divine, and the laws they received promised a new kind of just society in the Land of Israel.
Our sages believed that maasei avot siman lebanim (the actions of the fathers are a sign for the sons). We are expected to learn from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and follow in their footsteps. Like Abraham, we, too, are supposed to value truth above tradition. We, too, are supposed to strive and hear God’s Lech lecha – the command to Abraham to leave his familiar place – and follow that command beyond what’s familiar to us, well into an unknown land. Our heritage encourages us to dare and innovate (lechadesh in Hebrew), not merely repeat that which came before. But it expects us to do so while we follow our ancient traditions and practices, and read the same texts over and over again. Jewish life calls upon us to renew, but it does so through repetitive cycles.
The very first commandment God gave the Jewish people offers insight into this tension between repetition and renewal. “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months” instructs God while the Israelites are still in Egypt, on the cusp of their redemption. “It shall be the first month of the year to you.”
The sages interpret this passage as an investment of authority. The Israelites are now responsible to determine the beginning of each lunar month. We, not God, hold the power to declare a new month, and therefore to determine when all the holidays will take place. But the Hebrew word for “month” used in this passage, chodesh, hints at a bigger role we have to play. While the Hebrew word for year, shana, comes from the word for repetition, the word for month comes from the verb meaning “to renew.” Perhaps by making the “chodesh” our responsibility, the Torah entrusted us with finding the new within the old, as well.
We encounter the same Torah portions over and over again. But our human nature enables us to meet them in new and different ways. We change. We grow. While the texts remain unchanged, we encounter them differently. When I sat in a sunlit room all those years ago, surrounded by babies and Torah, Halickman helped me meet the Torah anew. She did more than make Torah study possible for me, despite my limitations; she turned my limitations into a new stepping stone into the texts. She encouraged me to ask the questions that emerged from my stage in life, and express the concerns parenthood evoked in me. I entered the world of Torah as I was at that moment – sleep deprivation, diapers and all – and emerged with new insights into the familiar stories.
This book invites all readers to do the same, and find the “chadash” within the repeating cycle of the Jewish year.  

 The book launch with Sharona Margolin Halickman and Rabbanit Shani Taragin will take place on Monday, July 29 at
7 p.m. at Matan Jerusalem.

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