Sam Wilson thought he was in pretty good shape, running around the Tidal Basin and the Pedestrian Mall in D.C. It didn’t exactly boost his ego when, in a blur, someone runs by him, yelling out, “On your left.” A few bewildered minutes later, the same speedster laps him with an identical, “On your left.” Another few minutes go by and he hears the same polite but infuriating, “On your left.”
The runner exuding the annoying courtesy was Steve Rogers – Captain America – and the guy coming in second would soon be his partner, the Falcon. Five years and thirteen Marvel films later, audiences heard that same “On your left” – but this time it was the Falcon calling out to Cap. The audience, primed by a brilliantly laid-out path over years, exploded when they heard the line from Captain America: Winter Soldier echoed before the climactic battle in Avengers: Endgame. I cheered along with the rest of them.
And while we’re on the subject of the Avengers, Cap (all fans are on a first-name basis) never utters the team’s iconic cry (“Avengers – Assemble!”) in any of Marvel’s movies, even though he teases it with just the first part (“Avengers…”) in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Fans were no doubt feeling played, until Endgame, when Cap (finally) uttered the full command through gritted teeth. Again, every moviegoer whooped and hollered.
If any of the screamers only saw Endgame, they’d no doubt enjoy those “On your left” and “Avengers Assemble” moments. In and of themselves, they were pretty cool lines, spoken by a red-white-and-blue superhero. But the meaning behind the lines was multiplied by the lead-up, because of the deeper appreciation of what those lines meant to the character and to the story overall.
Torah is, at least in this way, like a good Avengers movie (stay with me). Every parashah is an educable moment, full of lessons both theological and philosophical. The meaning is enhanced though, when each sidra is read in the context of the one before it and the one before that. Linguistic parallels are provided to the reader who studied earlier passages, who can then seize upon the connection. What we learn from studying the character of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs paves the way for a better understanding of Moshe, which in turn leads us to appreciate the leadership of Joshua in a completely different light.
If the moviegoing experience can be elevated by sitting through every film in a series (you can watch The Rise of Skywalker by itself, but how much more would you get out of it if you see the eight films produced before it?), then we can apply the same principle to Torah study – or to history itself. Americans (spoiler alert: gross generalization approaching) seem to revel in disconnected historical accounts – which, ironically, is so not the point of studying history in the first place. Just because Santayana’s aphorism has been reduced to a bumper sticker, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Those who cannot remember the past are absolutely condemned to repeat it.
But back to Torah study. It’s not solely the studying of a parashah in the context of the other parshiot; it’s also reading and re-reading, studying and studying again. No doubt that when one reads Lech Lecha during high school, certain messages all but leap off the page. Read again at twenty-five, or after the birth of a first child, or when that child marries, other lessons seem… obvious.
We’re taught that Talmud Torah knegged kulam, that Jewish learning transcends everything else. I’d append to that 1,700+ year old nugget another thought to keep in mind: Talmud Torah chayav l’hiyot l’chol y’maichem – the study of Torah must be for all your days (sounds better in Hebrew).
Therein lies the inherent sadness in Jewish education ending at thirteen, or for the Confirmation go-getters, at sixteen – just when it can really begin in earnest. I know no American Jewish parents who condone (or celebrate) the end of the study of literature – or science, or math – when that child becomes thirteen. Yet too many are perfectly comfortable with topping off their children’s Jewish study before they obtain a drivers license.
Jewish education can’t be a one-off, and it’s not something that one “completes” long before heading off to college. To switch metaphors (how many movies can one person see?), the magic of an elusive runner’s high is only achieved after years and years of jogging. The meaning that transcends a pshat (a surface) understanding only comes after thoughtful reflection, and of pushing oneself to ask the tough questions. Jewish education is a marathon.