Simchat Torah & Parshat Bereshit

By Rabbi Alex Weisz

It was the great Ahad Ha’am who said that “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” While I certainly would not disagree with this legendary assertion, Shabbat’s weight and might as a concept within Judaism is dwarfed by its source: the Torah itself. I would humbly respond to Ha’am that more than the Jewish people have kept the Torah, the Torah has kept the Jewish people. And while I can only imagine how that assertion may ruffle some feathers, I want to be abundantly clear: I do not mean keeping the Torah in the strict confines of Orthopraxis, heaven forbid – I mean keeping the Torah in the broadest of senses.

While thrice-daily prayer and Shabbat establishes the rhythm of Jewish time, perhaps it is the weekly Torah portion that serves as the melody – while the harmonies presented by its great commentaries create a dazzling piece of music in time. Who is the vocalist on top of this metaphorical song? We are – in the observations and new insights we gain, made even stronger by our discussions with others.

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, there has been no greater community organizer for the Jewish community than studying Torah. From the early Sages, to the academy at Yavneh, to my art-deco shtiebel of a congregation in Los Angeles, from late antiquity to our very day, there is no more effective way to bring Jews together than through the ongoing study of Torah. Some of my most cherished friendships were established and cultivated through Torah study – as I am sure is the case with many of you. However, not only does Jewish learning bring together people in community today – it also binds us to the glorious tapestry of Torah, woven by students of Torah throughout time and space. It is truly the greatest book club that has ever, or will ever, exist.

Not only do we learn what we should and should not do – through the Rabbinic tradition and the great commentaries throughout the generations, we learn the values and preferences of our people, giving us the tools to evaluate them ourselves and to apply and/or adjust them to our current historical context. Not only are we sharpened intellectually – if we pay proper attention, regular, daily Torah study also sharpens us spiritually and ethically. While rigorous study of Torah does not inherently create a good person, it gives all of the tools to open one’s eyes to the kedushah that fills our world.

As one of America’s first Gen-Z rabbis leading a congregation, I can enthusiastically report that young Jews today are ravenous for a sense of authenticity. We are hungry for original sources and do not want to be patronized with summaries or editorial explanations. Regardless of one’s personal life choices, including but not limited to who one loves, their gender identity, or personal observance of halakha, millennial and Gen Z Jews are eager to learn. Combined with the radical democratization of Torah created by Sefaria, we are on the precipice of a Torah renaissance around the Jewish world – especially within non-denominational spaces.

The best part of all is that daily Torah study takes minutes each day. There are seven days of the week, corresponding to 7 aliyot in each Torah portion – even a lengthy aliyah can be read in a few minutes. Add in a commentary, from Rashi to the Ibn Ezra to Nechama Leibowitz, and you have a rich experience of Torah learning in under 10 minutes each day. Read one of the countless drashes and essays on the weekly Torah portion, from the Sfat Emet, to Rabbi David Kasher’s recent volume Parsha Nut, to Dr. Aviva Zornberg’s works – as well as AJRCA’s fabulous Al HaTorah drashes! As the great Sage Hillel states in Pirkei Avot, “do not say ‘I will study when I have free time!’ for you may never have free time.” Thankfully, we are blessed with a Torah that can be studied in mere minutes each day, that can be fit within the busiest of schedules.

As the Torah itself says: “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Devarim 30:11-14)

It is our greatest gift – all we have to do is to sit down and study.