Monday, October 20, 2014
Torah on a Möbius Strip
by Josh Yarden
I just finished reading the end of the Five Books of Moses, again, and even though I did not read the entire five books this year, or any other year for that matter, I have already started over from the beginning. This past week was the festival of Simchat Torah, dedicated to celebrating our connection to the text we have come to know as the first five books of the Bible. It marks the end of the cycle of weekly readings, and the beginning of the renewed cycle. We went strait from the account of Moses' passing (at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy) to the meditation on the creation of the world (at the beginning of the Book of Genesis), as though that is the natural order of the verses in a Torah scroll.
Each year is a new beginning in the cycle of Torah reading, but even if you were to read the 79,847 words of a complete Torah scroll, even if that is all you did all year, you would still have skipped over much of what there is to find there. There is always more there than previously met the eye, because the nearly eighty thousand words are presented in prose poems. Scratch the surface, and even the seemingly mundane legalistic sections are bursting with metaphor, wordplay, and oblique references to other parts of the text.
Revisiting the text is never quite returning to the same text. The words remain the same, but since a year has passed, or perhaps many, the reader is never quite the same as during a previous read. The old text now exists within a new context. As we approach familiar stories with additional sensibilities, we can gain something new each time we read it again. Many passages of Torah can be understood more deeply over time. Here is one illustration of how a story that will be coming around again soon is given to multiple interpretation.
A young person reading the story of the binding of Isaac might imagine being tied down on an altar and prepared for sacrifice by a parent. Reading the same words as the parent of a young child makes it quite a different story. What could possess a person to even consider the possibility of sacrificing a child? Abraham was somehow stopped from committing the act of ritual slaughter, but that moment is nonetheless the last time that Abraham and Isaac speak or meet face to face in the biblical narrative. Indeed, later rabbinic writings retell the story as though Abraham had actually sacrificed his son.
Studying the biblical text anew provides some insight as to how the story could be understood that way. There are things we sacrifice, metaphorically speaking. People are at times among the ‘sacrifices' we make. Even though we do not physically cut them down, we do at times give up on people for various reasons, perhaps regrettably so. The parent of a young adult might come to wonder if in some sense, he had not in effect 'sacrificed' a relationship with a son or daughter on the 'altar' of something previously held with a blindly driven commitment… a career, or something even more frivolous. After sufficient damage is done, it may be too late to repair the relationship.
Reading the story in that light, perhaps someone can see that she is on a path to losing a connection with a child, a parent, or a friend. And perhaps there is still time to find a way to turn back before irreversible events come to pass. If there are three ways to see this one aspect of the brief story of the binding of Isaac there are likely to be many more entirely legitimate interpretations. The Hebrew reveals additional possibilities for appreciating the wordplay, much of which is narrowly defined or even essentially ignored in translation.
The Open Source
Moving from the end of Torah to the beginning again in a nearly seamless translation, it almost seems as if the text is not rolled into a scroll, but rather spread out in a great circle of text. Imagine yourself walking around the inside of the huge ring of parchment, the circumference measuring the length of an entire Torah scroll. Say it takes a year to walk around the closed loop to read everything on the walls of that space. But if you spend a year bound within the confines of the text, you would be cut off from the world beyond that space. On the one hand, the idea is honestly a bit tempting; you do not go beyond the ring, and no one from beyond the ring interrupts your experience. Maybe it sounds like an extended vacation. On the other hand, maybe that isolation is the road to being cut off from others.
We all make choices. What are you willing to bind to the alter of your commitments? The circles we create do not have to wall us off from the rest of the world. Separate the ends of that ring for a moment. (It may be the ring of Torah, some other text, or any other commitment that has created a divide between you and the rest of the world.) Flip one of the ends and put them back together to create a Möbius strip, or an open loop.
As you walk along the surface of the ring you will effortlessly see that sometimes you are on the inside and sometimes you are on the outside. There does not have to be a clear boundary between your internal identity and your external commitments. You can now walk along the strip reading the text as an insider/outsider; the continuous surface reflects not only everything within it, but everything around it too. Every principle, symbol and character within the text now faces all of the influences and the challenges we all face in our lives, year-round, beyond the prescribed times and places for ritual or study. And all of those experiences are reflected in the text.
Torah is a compilation of ideas which reflects the way in which it was interpreted into existence. Stories were told, retold, written and rewritten over centuries. Some were adopted and adapted from other languages and cultures. The early results of this evolutionary process were later edited, debated and redacted; they were altered by choice as well as by the human error of scribes. The scroll contains the product of that process, which is only semi-refined in that state. Nearly eighty thousand words lined up in columns of text have been mined for their potential meaning over thousands of years of interpretive writings, from essays and books, to visual and performing art as well as contemporary cinema. All of it has emerged from that open loop. People have been doing a lot of reading between the lines. As I begin a new cycle of Torah reading, I plan to revisit this story and others to see what I have missed so far, and to discover what was simply not yet there, because I was not yet here.
Posted by Joshua Yarden at 12:30 AM | Permalink