I have never enjoyed learning Chumash. While I love learning Torah She Baal Peh, and find that my passion and appreciation for the logic of the halachic process can help make the material come alive for my students, I have never felt that way about learning Chumash, and therefore, I have always stayed away from teaching it. Perhaps I’ve felt this way because the stories are too familiar to me; after learning them over and over again in Chumash class, and then repeating them again in parsha class, year after year, it tends to preclude a sense of intellectual curiosity. This issue is also compounded by the process in which we often learned Chumash in school- read a passuk, read the Meforshim, then repeat. While some teachers used the methodology of Nechama Leibowitz, a”h, and made the material more interesting, overall, it was a subject I never really connected to. And that’s always bothered me.
Until the following story happened.
It was erev Pesach and I was busy cleaning out my fridge while my cleaner wiped the counters beside me. As she was unaccustomed to the holiday, I explained to her that Jews rid their houses of leavened items before Passover to remember the exodus from Egypt. As I explained, a spark ignited in her eyes and she told me that a few nights before, she had seen a movie on television called, “The Ten Commandments”. Clearly unfamiliar with the Bible, she had never heard of the Ten Plagues or the Splitting of the Sea and she was blown away by the story.
I smiled to conceal my shock, all the while trying to resist the cynical thought of How are you only hearing this story now? If she had never seen “The Ten Commandments”, hadn’t she at least seen the Prince of Egypt? Who has never heard of the story of the Exodus from Egypt?
I’ve found myself revisiting this incident many times. And I’ve realized that my cleaner taught me a valuable lesson.
She was right. The story of the Exodus from Egypt is an amazing story, worth every bit of her childlike enthusiasm and more. But having learned these stories countless times, the excitement has worn off. The Jews were slaves. There were ten plagues. The sea split, the Jews crossed, the Egyptians drowned. Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya.
And this is true about many of the stories we learn in Tanach, particularly the ones in Breishit. How many of us truly feel Yosef’s pain as he faces the brothers who sold him to Egypt… and the anxiety to hear the continuation of the story as we end Parshat Miketz? Who internalizes the angst of Leah and Rachel as one sister feels the pain of loving a man who only wants her sister, while the other watches her sister give birth over and over again while she herself is barren? Each parsha should elicit a gasp, a tear, a pang. But in our rote reading of a story we are all too-familiar with, how often does that happen?
For all of the benefits of Jewish education, learning the same stories from such a young age, year after year, sometimes robs us of the emotional impact as we grow older.
And so, inspired by the words of my cleaner, I embarked on a journey to discover the excitement of learning Chumash. I read a beautiful Netivot Shalom on Parshat Breishit last year, which really paved the way to this endeavor. The Netivot Shalom quotes Rashi’s famous question and asks, if Torah is all about teaching us mitzvot, why does it start with Breishit and not the first mitzvah of “HaChodesh ha’zeh lachem”? He answers that the purpose of Sefer Breishit is to teach us about middot. We see what happens with jealousy and sibling rivalry with Kayin and Hevel (and nearly every other relationship in Sefer Breishit). We learn about correcting our ways from Yehuda when he errs with selling Yosef but then stands up for Binyamin. We learn about incredible self-sacrifice when Rachel steps aside for her sister. We learn about emunah and Tefilla as three out of the four Imahot continuously daven when they are barren. Says the Netivot Shalom, before a person can possibility learn about mitzvot, he must first learn middot. And that’s why Sefer Breishit comes first before we are given the mitzvot.
I decided that this was the key to approaching the parshiyot I had learned every year, with fresh eyes.
Each week, I looked for the humanity in the parsha. In every story of self-sacrifice, and faith, I found relevance in my own life and ways to deal with challenges I was facing that particular week. Suddenly every parsha- literally, every parsha, had new meaning- not just the actual stories, but even the parts of the Torah that are more technical but which offer a system of ethics and reverence for Kedusha. Stories of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and even complaints about minutiae in the desert made me evaluate decisions, complaints and frustrations in my own life. Examples of leadership in the Torah made me evaluate decisions I made and offered guidance for increased patience, humility and when to choose my battles.
Finding a personal approach to the Torah increased my desire for understanding words, verses, characters and stories, which led me to read Meforshim with a hunger for answers. Despite being Jewishly educated from preschool through graduate school, I found that the stories I thought I knew are not quite the way I knew them. As I read with fresh eyes, I found myself learning new details that I had glossed over previously.
As the year ended off, I came to the following realization: Perhaps when Sefer Devarim tells over the same incidents that happened in Sefer Shemot but with slightly altered facts, it’s not that the facts are different but that the focus is on different details because that’s what that generation needed to hear as they entered Eretz Yisrael. And perhaps this could be applied to life because as we read the Torah each year, we also hear the same incidents differently, as pertains to what is going on in our life at that time. There is no such thing as “I’ve learned it since Kindergarten” when each interpretation and lesson learned is constantly evolving, based on life’s circumstances.
And so thanks to an offhand comment made by my cleaner and a beautiful Netivot Shalom, Chumash is no longer just a subject we learned in school, or a book on my shelf that theoretically guides my life, but something I look forward to learning every Shabbos, as a book of inspiration, ethics and personal guidance. Who knows? Maybe one day, I may even teach it.