Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

My Tanach Intersession; Prepping for the Next Semester

That worked out pretty well, I’d have to say. Let’s do it again, but differently, in 2017!

I’m referring to my 2016 goal of reading the Tanach in one calendar year, using a cranked-up variation on the Orthodox Union’s Nach Yomi plan. I wrote about my plan in April, after I cracked open a hotel-room Bible from Gideons International to keep me moving through Jeremiah. Sticking to my basic idea of three chapters daily, I wrapped up the Tanach a few days before Hanukkah with a burst through the last third of II Chronicles. I alternated between the Stone Tanach (at home) and the Jewish Publication Society Tanach (at the office). The printed reading plan is an invaluable resource, sort of a spiritual FitBit for tracking progress. Here’s how I used it:

Here's my spiritual FitBit, as I tracked my Tanach journey.
Here’s my spiritual FitBit, as I tracked my Tanach journey.

In contrast to the OU’s two-year plan, reading Tanach in a year speeds up the action and sharpens the personalities. Plus, the discipline of three chapters (or more, in the case of Psalms), prevented chapters from piling up unread. While I’ve read the Tanach multiple times since I was an adolescent, this cycle felt different. I didn’t meander; rather, I strode purposely down the road of Tanach. Kings, Common folk and prophets stood out as distinct individuals in a new way. Some of my favorites:

The sarcastic prophet. In I Kings 18, the prophet Elijah squares off against the prophets of Baal in a duel of who’s got the real Mojo working for them. Whose sacrifice would be accepted? The Baal team jumped around and danced for hours, even cutting themselves for good measure. Nothing worked. Elijah urged them to keep trying, saying, “Cry out in a loud voice, for he is a god! Perhaps he is conversing, or pursuing [enemies], or relieving himself; perhaps he is asleep and will awaken!” Spoiler alert: The fire of Hashem devoured Elijah’s elevation offering and Elijah executed the false prophets, who had a very bad day at the Baal park. Off to the showers, guys.

Jewish girls gone wild. The Tanach abounds in sexual politics, from Adam and Eve blaming each other for the regrettable culinary episode in the Garden of Eden to Lot’s daughters to Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar to the Five Feisty Daughters of Zelophehad to David’s deadly infatuation with Batsheva, the wife of Uriah. The Book of Esther always intrigued me with its depiction of a Persian beauty contest, with Esther crowned the winning competitor:

And when each maiden’s turn arrived to go to King Ahasuerus, after having been treated according to the practice prescribed for the women, for twelve months, for so were the days of their ointments completed, six months with myrrh oil, and six months with perfumes, and with the ointments of the women. . . Then with this the maiden would come to the king; whatever she would request would be given to her to come with her from the house of the women to the king’s house. . . And the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor before him more than all the maidens, and he placed the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.

The gender ballet between Esther and Ahasuerus is compelling. It mixes beauty, guile, secrets, appeals and strategy in the face of onrushing catastrophe. The entire book feels very modern.

Wheeling and dealing. The Book of Ezra/Nehemiah struck me with its occasional first-person narratives and the exacting attention to the details of bureaucratic battles and communications over the Jews’ return from the exile in Persia and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall. As in Esther, the book deals with high-level politics. Ezra/Nehemiah reads as an ancient WikiLeaks with crucial records turning up as needed. As noted in Ezra 6,

Then King Darius issued a decree, and they searched in the library where the archives were stored in Babylonia. A scroll was discovered in a pouch in the palace in the province of Media, and this was the record what was written in it:

With the 2016 cycle done, I’m enjoying a 10-day intersession before I hit the Books again on New Year’s Day. For 2017, I want to go beyond just the reading to more analysis of the deeper meaning. I can read enough Hebrew that I could puzzle out a verse or two of each chapter, with dictionary help. Going beyond the English always adds to my connection with Judaism.

The OU’s Nach Yomi Companion looks like a straightforward, even breezy, read. Sefaria on my smartphone gives ideal access to verse-by-verse Hebrew and English, except it lacks commentary with the text. Chabad’s Daily Torah Study gets deeper into the text with so many options that I’ll need to pick and choose. The English-Hebrew text with Rashi commentary looks appealing, although I’m also interested in more modern interpretations. I clicked around the Reform and Conservative movement websites but couldn’t find anything beyond summaries or, in the case of the Conservative site, a lot of dead links.

The Tanach intersession enables me to catch my spiritual breath, line up the study resources and get ready for new directions. And a year from now, who knows, I may be ready to tackle the Daf Yomi.

About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.