I have a friend who’s a plasma physicist. He’s brilliant- really brilliant- and divides much of his time between the finer points of cold fusion and developing alternative energy sources (may he only succeed!).
When we first met about thirty years ago, this friend, who is Jewish, wasn’t all that into synagogue. He famously commented to my wife and me that coming to synagogue every Shabbat was sort of like going to the same play every week… same script, same actors, same ending. Groundhog Day for Jews.
Well- my friend has changed a bit through the years. He’s still a perennially dissatisfied synagogue consumer, but as best as I can tell, that just makes him a real Jew. I, however, remain fascinated by his original insight about the experience of regular synagogue attendance, and the insinuation of numbing boredom born of the unrelenting sameness of the service.
I usually revisit that fascination at just about this time of year, when we plunge headlong into the new cycle of Torah readings and once again read the unceasingly enigmatic and compelling stories of Genesis.
Prayers aside, the Torah is our script. Its stories are our own, and whether we find them compelling or not, we are obliged to encounter them anew each and every year, without variation. Some of them, like large portions of this week’s Torah reading, we actually get to read twice. The Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah- both days- are excerpts of Parashat Vayera that we read this Shabbat, and- not surprisingly- they are difficult chapters. So in case we didn’t get the full import of their difficulty the first time around, we get another chance.
A high school teacher of mine once said in class that reading Romeo and Juliet for even the hundredth time will never be a repetitious experience, because great writing will always afford you the opportunity to discover something new upon re-reading. I doubt that she knew it- actually, I’m quite sure she didn’t- but she was repeating the sense of a famous rabbinic teaching that one cannot compare someone who has studied a particular mishnah one hundred times to another person who has studied the same text one hundred and one times. There are always new things to learn.
It was my Mishnah teacher who taught me that teaching, of course- kind of a self-serving lesson. But he was right. Repeated encounter with a great text, whether Bible, Shakespeare, or any other, will always yield something new and unexpected: an internal rhyme that you hadn’t noticed, a play on words that you had missed, a different interpretation, etc. There is something both challenging and delightfully familiar about greeting a familiar text, kind of like embracing an old friend.
I totally understand what my friend was saying all those years ago, and I recognize that many people feel the way he did about the prayers themselves, and not just the Torah portions. We say the same prayers every week, and many of them every day, multiple times!
But familiarity has its sweet advantages, and in troubled times like ours, old friends are always a welcome antidote.