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Reflections on Torah Study
August 2009  

I went more than three weeks ago, but it’s still so fresh in my mind and it was such a glorious day, that I wanted to share it with you. On Thursday, July 23rd, I joined thousands of men and women of all ages flooding the campus of the Herzog College of Gush Etzion for the annual Bible conference. What was, just a few years ago, a small summer seminar for teachers, has been transformed into an unrivaled center of learning. The annual Bible “Days of Learning” conference had started on Monday and I caught the fourth and final day. I caught a ride with Sondra Baras, who, as she does every year, took off all four days from work to attend the entire program. We left at 7:30 in the morning for the hour and a half ride. We arrived at 9, parked, and set across the lovely college campus of the Yeshiva- the School for Bible and Talmud studies. Beautiful buildings and dormitories dotted the landscaping and sturdy trees and flowering shrubs decorated the sprawling lawns.

By the time we made it indoors to the main building, the trickle of people had turned to a steady stream and I hurried to get in line for registration. Sounds crazy to say, but one of my favorite parts of the whole day was standing on that line. Most of the 5,000 (!) participants had registered by mail or on the internet and they arrived with beautifully organized packets of when and where each course they chose was taking place, and they started making their way to their first class. They were helped by gracious young men and women ushers, wearing visible staff vests, who were “directing traffic”. Watching the flow of humanity passing by me and glancing at those on line with me for late registration, I just stood there in awe of what I was seeing. There were thousands of people: senior citizens, some making their way haltingly through the halls; there were middle aged couples who had decided to take off from work to spend the day there together; there were newly married women in traditional kerchief head coverings who had to make arrangements to leave small children at home; there were young soldiers and yeshiva students and teenage girls who chose a day of Torah study as a way to spend their summer break.

The desire—even thirst—for Bible study was glaringly obvious that day. The radiance in people’s faces, the electricity in the air was befitting an event of more pomp and excitement. Yet, here the excitement was in the shared passion for intensive Bible study. Most of these people were not first timers and most of them had a strong background in Torah study and were ready and waiting for a rigorous day of expanding and extending their knowledge on topics they had learned many times since childhood. This most holy of books has been around for some 4,000 years and we continue to analyze and find new insights. The Bible has been proven to be a book to be studied and not just read.

The topics were extremely varied and what tied them together is that they focused on a book or topic from the Bible. The choices were very rich and diverse and the hardest part of this conference was choosing just one class for each time slot. There were seven parallel lectures at any given time—seven! And I was torn between choosing a subject matter that sounded fascinating, like “Fate and Destiny of Israel’s Enslavement in Egypt”; or a chapter in one of the Prophets that I never had the chance to study, like the parables in Ezekiel 16; or picking a course just because I knew that the Rabbi or professor giving the course was phenomenal in anything he taught. But what a joy the choice was!

Two summers ago I had also attended the Bible Seminar, but this year I had the special privilege of attending with my mother who was here in Israel for a three month visit. No day at the spa for us; no sitting around a coffee shop eating, no sunning ourselves on the beach. My mother and I have done all those things together, but this day was something else. Two generations of Jews—a mother and a daughter, taking time from their routines to be together, sharing the opportunity of delving into Biblical texts. And loving every minute of it!

The program was extremely well thought-out. Numbers were collated and the bigger rooms were given to the classes with the highest registration. Some classes had audiences of 500 people! There was wonderful organization, with cartons at each door holding source sheets of commentaries and texts to be referred to during the lectures, for participants to take to their seats. If a class was supposed to last from 9:30 until 10:40, then at 9:30 the lecturer would stand at the podium and the classroom or auditorium or synagogue or tent (!) would silence and the class would begin.

There were 20 minutes between classes and we needed them, in order to allow us to scurry to the next class, sometimes well across campus. During the breaks there was a steady soft roar of stimulated discussion as people, still caught up in the magic of their past class, shared with their hall mates what they had just heard! For me, the bustling rush through the halls was transformed into a royal processional. Everyone was clutching their miniature Bibles in their hands and it reminded me of the verse in Deuteronomy 17 which commanded Kings of Israel to write themselves a Torah Scroll and to keep it with them at all times, when greeting their public, when marching out to war. We were all carrying our own personal Torah Scrolls and it was a beautiful sight to see. Every Jewish home, besides having sets upon sets of each book of the Bible and volumes of commentaries on those texts, has a few copies of these complete miniature Bibles. Kids get one with their diplomas as a gift from their school upon graduating. Soldiers get handed one at their army initiations along with their rifles. We are meant to have the words of the Bible accessible at all times and these Bibles usually show the wonderful wear and tear of use. The pages are often onion-skin thin, to allow the volume to be lightweight and small enough to be portable. Very often you’ll see this small Bible on the windshields or glove compartments of people’s cars, in case the driver or passengers have a half hour to spare for Bible study on the road. People keep them in their purses or school bags, ready to be whipped out for private studying or for a Bible class. Some of the classes that day had us flipping happily through the Bible, from Chronicles to Isaiah, from Exodus to Psalms, examining texts, analyzing phraseology and comparing verses. People’s methods in Bible classes are different. Some scribble in their texts with faint pencil marks, some bring along slips of paper to mark different spots, but everyone handles the delicate pages with the love and familiarity given to the best and closest of friends.

Bible study is a part of every Jewish home. There are Jews who devote their entire days to Torah study, living very simply and frugally in order to allow themselves that “luxury”. Some people take a year or two off before starting university or work to focus entirely on Torah study. Many years ago, when my husband Kuti finished school and started working, he made sure to set aside a few nights a week to meet with a study partner in our home, sometimes late at night, to study a topic of the Bible they had chosen. Sometimes he’d wake up extra early, before work and even before joining the daily prayer quorum at synagogue, in order to find an hour of Bible study. The favorite part of his most recent job was that it started later in the morning and he had a chance to remain in the study hall of the synagogue after prayers for an hour and a half of Bible study with two friends.

Some of the favorite parts of my week are my Wednesday morning women’s study class with our neighborhood Rabbi and my Shabbat afternoon Bible Portion of the Week class. My teenage girls keep volumes of Bible commentaries near their beds in order to make sure they grab in some Bible study before going to bed. When my three boys come home from synagogue on Shabbat, Kuti takes each one of them aside to review the chapters and verses they studied that week in school or to let them choose another topic to study. On the last day of school, my kids are given report cards, book lists for the following year, and a list of recommended Bible study for EVERY DAY of summer vacation with a gentle reminder that there is no vacation from Torah study. My friend says that for years she has gone to a Bible class every Sunday night. Sometimes she’s exhausted after a long hard day and doesn’t know if she’ll be able to keep her eyes open during the lecture. But she goes. She wants Torah study to be part of her day and she likes that her kids see her leaving to a Bible class once a week!

Besides all the wonderful and unique insights I came away with that day through the in-depth learning and examination of texts, I came away with a satisfying sense of assurance that our Bible is alive and well. And I am grateful that Bible study is not limited to a privileged elite or to a short period during our school years. It is a life-long daily journey of discovery. May our involvement in Torah study stand us in G-d’s good stead and may its virtue allow us to continue learning His word in His land.

Shalom,

Shira Schwartz
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