Tanakh, Chapter by Chapter
According to Pirkei Avot, five-years-old is the age that one begins to learn Tanakh. In practice, for most children, early Torah study takes the form of “parsha stories,” gradually increasing in levels of complexity and sophistication as students develop text skills and comprehension. Torah education is more than just the weekly portion, of course. The study of Tanakh from a young age provides a foundation in Jewish history, and context for connecting to Jewish practice.
For most baalei teshuva, studying Tanakh is much less systematized, because each person’s path to observance is different, motivated by different ideas and experiences, and occurring at different times of life, from adolescence through older adulthood. However one’s journey begins, each person will eventually seek to contextualize the Jewish experience and belief system. While a wealth of educational materials is available for those who wish to bridge gaps in their knowledge, there is no substitute for studying the text of Tanakh.
I became a baalat teshuva more than 20 years ago, as a public school-educated teenager with a basic Hebrew school education. In my high school years, I began regularly studying the weekly Torah portion, but had almost no knowledge of the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim.
During my sophomore year at Stern College for Women, I first opened the book of Yehoshua, and was moved to discover that it opens with, “[i]t happened after the death of Moshe.” This chapter is read as the Haftarah on Simhat Torah. I had read it before, but never with a focus on its meaning. The Torah closes with the death of Moshe, and Sefer Yehoshua continues the story a short time later, perhaps immediately after the period of mourning for Moshe. I had a vague notion that the story went on; that even though in shul we immediately turn back to “[i]n the beginning,” there was, in fact, a next chapter. Now I knew what it was.
That revelation--excuse the pun--marked the beginning of my commitment to reading all the books of Tanakh, from cover to cover. Two decades later, after many false starts, I am finally closing in on that goal.
Although I did not have the opportunity to study Tanakh in my formative years, which would have provided me an innate connection to the text, I have a different sort of advantage: the ability to read the stories with fresh eyes, and to think about details of narrative and turns of phrase that most affect a first-time reader.
I am studying Tanakh in English because my Hebrew skills are not strong enough to fully understand the text without translation. Even though my skills have improved quite a bit, reading unfamiliar text “inside” is still a slow and challenging process, especially when the language is poetic or the meaning is metaphoric. My goal was to make reading Tanakh as easy and pleasant for myself as possible.
Similar logic determined the pace of my study. The summer after my freshman year in college, I spent a few weeks studying in Israel. As the summer session drew to a close, the teacher advised students to establish a habit of learning Torah for five minutes a day. Why not more than that? Because requiring oneself to learn more every day would make the habit too cumbersome to maintain. Of course there is always the option to learn more, but keeping the baseline requirement low makes it sustainable. Over the years, that advice has resonated with me, so I applied it to my study of Tanakh in recent years.
It is indeed true that slow and steady wins the race. I am now reading Divrei Hayamim II, the last volume of Tanakh. I am humbled by how little I still know, but pleased to have nearly reached my goal, which was to deepen my basic understanding of Tanakh and have a passing familiarity with the content of each book. Along the way, I took note of some of the insights that occurred to me, and which I felt others would appreciate.
Putting Jewish History into Perspective
Until I read the book of Yehoshua, I thought of the sovereign Jewish presence in the land of Israel in a very abstract way – something that began at an indeterminate time in the distant past. All of a sudden, I realized that the first steps to Yishuv Haaretz, settling the land, began almost immediately after Moshe’s death, making his inability to cross into the land all the more poignant.
Similarly, Melakhim I and II cover hundreds of years of events that I had heard of or read about in various ways, but never in context. For example, King David is celebrated as the greatest king of Israel and Shlomo is praised for his wisdom, and I knew that sometime after them the land of Israel was divided into two kingdoms – south and north, Judea and Samaria. I just didn’t know that the division came so quickly after Shlomo’s death, with his own son, Rahavam, as one of the main players.
Melakhim is a veritable catalogue of bad leadership, with scoundrels, ruffians, idol worshippers, and fools taking turns in leading a divided nation. Once every few generations a good king arises who is “like King David” in his righteousness, with some truly heroic standouts amid a motley crew of evildoers. Most of what I knew about this period came from studies related to Tisha B’Av. Reading in context about centuries of corrupt leadership showed me why we continue to mourn on Tisha B’Av. (Conversely, it also gave me hope for the future of our people, knowing what dark times we have endured.)
My whole understanding of the idea of Jewish sovereignty in Israel was greatly enhanced by studying Nakh (Nevi’im and Ketuvim). In the Humash, aside from the stories of the three Avot (forefathers) who spent at least part of their lives in Eretz Canaan, the idea of settling in the Promised Land is a distant dream. It is only in the Nevi’im that the dream begins to become a reality, with stories detailing the fits and starts of conquering the land, and governing as a sovereign people, beset by wars from external enemies and tragic internal strife. Reading about the wars and losses for the land of Israel, and the striving to return in times of exile, gave depth and dimension to what I had always known about our spiritual and emotional connection to the land.
Tanakh as Literature
The books of Tanakh were written for religious, and not literary purposes, but their writing style and plot lines are often enjoyable reading on their own. And the phrasing of sentences, I realized, serves as a template for thousands of years of subsequent literature.
Teachers of English often advise students to avoid writing “said,” following quoted statements, and instead to vary their language, using words like “exclaimed,” “pronounced,” etc. As a journalism student I was taught to unlearn this advice. While language repetition is usually ill advised, “said” is the rare exception. The same principle can be learned from Tanakh. While Tanakh uses a number of words to attribute quotes, the default words are daber and amar, which are relatively neutral in meaning. In its simplicity, “said” (daber) avoids imposing meaning and blends into the text to the point that it is barely noticed. Tanakh elegantly incorporates this principle, creating an enduring style.
As for compelling plot lines, Shmuel I and II are such page-turners they rival any modern novel. For me, the most suspenseful story is the account in Shmuel I in En-Gedi. King Shaul has been pursuing David, planning to kill him to preserve his claim to the throne. Unbeknownst to Shaul, David is hiding in a cave, which Shaul enters to relieve himself. David is literally within inches of Shaul, but the king is oblivious to his presence. David uses his sword to cut off a corner of Shaul’s robe (Shmuel I 24:5). Once Shaul exits the cave, David calls out to him, and holds up the severed piece of fabric, demonstrating that he could have killed him, but chose to spare his life.
The scene plays out like a pivotal scene in a blockbuster movie, and you almost expect Shaul to send soldiers to capture or slay David, or for David’s men in hiding to ambush Shaul, but what actually happens is surprisingly beautiful. Shaul cries, and says, “[y]ou are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me with goodness while I have repaid you with wickedness” (Shmuel I 24:18). Shaul blesses David, acknowledges that he will become king, and asks David to swear not to annihilate his descendants. After this, the two men part ways.
There is such depth in their astounding exchange, and incredible insight into human nature. Shaul is a tortured man, prone to melancholy, jealous, and unwilling to relinquish the throne. But deep down he loves David, his son-in-law, and regrets his wrongdoing. The scene is so powerful because it is not merely a show of strength, but a struggle to reconcile Shaul’s demons with the will of Hashem, which is for David to become king. It is a moment in which Shaul recognizes his failures, and repents for his deeds, even though he later resumes his pursuit of David.
Other stories demonstrate that David, too, struggles with weaknesses and desires. He commits grievous sins, but Jewish tradition judges him for the good, acknowledging that he was Israel’s greatest king, and that he atoned for his sins.
These stories and others demonstrate that stories in Tanakh stand on their own as fascinating tales that are artfully constructed and emotionally evocative.
Role of Nevi'im and Ketuvim in Jewish Practice
Biblical mitzvot and halakhah are sourced from the laws recorded and received by Moshe, not by later prophets. The reason for this, of course, is that Moshe’s level of prophecy was unlike any other prophet, and while later books issue directives to the Jewish people in a particular time or place, such as warnings to repent, only the Torah’s commandments are written as laws in perpetuity.
However, even though the books of Nakh are not directly related to determining Torah law, these works are woven into Jewish thought and practice.
Most obviously, the Haftarot read each Shabbat morning come from Nevi’im. On a basic level, many of the Haftarot demonstrate the historical application of halachot from the Torah. For example, Parashat Naso discusses the halachot of nazir, and the Haftarah, from Shoftim, is about Shimshon, who was a nazir. Others reflect words or concepts related to the parsha of the week, or the time of year at which they are read, such as the seven weeks of consolation between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.
If nothing else, the inclusion of the Haftarot by the sages was a brilliant way to incorporate a sort of highlight reel of Nevi’im, giving readers a taste of these books and perhaps sparking an interest in learning more.
Similarly, Tehillim comprise a large portion of our tefillot, either through inclusion of full perakim, or excerpted pesukim incorporated into various prayers. Since my college days, I have struggled with the role of “reciting Tehillim.” My brief formal education in tefillah focused primarily on the importance of including all the elements of davening, i.e. praising Hashem, issuing requests, giving thanks, and subjugation. The daily tefillot, most notably the Shemoneh Esrei, integrates these elements, and the Shemoneh Esrei is indeed structured as the capstone of our prayers.
To me, the Tehillim in Pesukei DeZimra and other tefillot seemed like mere introduction to the “real” prayers. However, finally taking time to reflect on the translation and the meaning of Tehillim, I began to appreciate that, just as the Shemoneh Esrei allows us to properly articulate our praise, requests, and thanks, the Tehillim offer us a voice to express joy, fear, trust, anguish, and every other possible emotion when we pray.
Tehillim 121, one of the most commonly read psalms in times of distress, is a particular favorite of mine. “I lift up my eyes and look toward the mountains. From where will my salvation come?” As someone who has spent most of my life living in hilly areas, the imagery of gazing toward the mountains and wondering if a resolution for one’s problems is on the horizon, resonates deeply with me, and helps me feel connected to the land of Israel, with the mountains that circle Jerusalem. Tehillim are not in our prayers merely as a warm-up exercise or the invocation of some type of prayer charm, but an attempt to connect with Hashem through beautifully composed poetry.
Beyond that, I have come to appreciate that all the books of Tanakh shape Jewish ideas about belief and our relationship with Hashem. Judaism as a whole is a religion of optimism, of hoping for better times. This is attitude is indelibly illustrated by Tanakh’s grand narrative, in which dreaming of the land of Israel, struggling to build the land, mourning the exile, and longing to return are constant themes. For all of the frustrated plans and devastating, unbearable losses, the hope of returning, and the trust in the One who will bring us home never fades. This optimism has been the
narrative of survival for our people for thousands of years.
Even though biblical halakhah is not derived from Nakh, ideas from Nakh are very much a part of the Gemara. In my limited study of Talmud, I have always been amazed at the way in which various verses of Tanakh are incorporated into rabbinic arguments; how a fragment of a pasuk can end a debate, with the context implicitly understood. For a novice, this can be extremely frustrating because, in addition to following the argument on the page, there is a whole world of referred texts that one is assumed to know and understand.
For the great rabbis of the Talmud, and their myriad students, Tanakh is alive and continues to offer wisdom and guidance. It is more than a collection of ancient reference books, collecting dust on a shelf.
I was inspired in 2014 when the Israeli education ministry launched 929: Tanakh B’yachad, a program to bring together Jews of diverse backgrounds by studying the same chapter of Tanakh each day. The project reaffirmed that study of Tanakh not only increases an individual’s understanding of the Jewish past and belief system, but gives us a shared language for connecting and relating to each other.
As I page through the final chapters of Divrei Hayamim II, I have a sense of accomplishment and greater knowledge, but more importantly, a deepened sense of being connected to Hashem, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel.