Torah Study: Listening for the Voice of God

Set aside a fixed time for study every day. Not necessarily a lot of time, nor a lot of study, but the important thing is that it be regular and fixed; in short, a practice. In my experience Torah study is not like other forms of reading. In Torah study we are aware of the process of reading itself. We are aware, for example, that when we read, our mind often wanders. We may get stuck on a particular passage for half an hour. We may read the same sentence over and over again a hundred times before we even realize what we are doing. Then suddenly a word or a phrase or a sentence or a page will leap up at us and catch our attention. Our mind will be suddenly awake and focused on what we are reading. In Torah study both the passages that catch our attention and the passages that set us off on a long rumination are significant. They are God speaking to us through the text of the Torah. The practice of Torah study is the practice of hearing that voice.
Or we may simply notice that certain words or phrases or sentences in the text are charged as though lit from within. And we may notice moments in our life like that as well. When we put the charged words or phrases or sentences together with the charged moments, we might find a significant rhyme, we might find that one instructs us about the other, and that both taken together are extremely significant for us, telling us something we really needed to know.

The practice is simply to be consistently aware—of the Torah, of the process of reading it, of our life. These are not different things.

Some practical advice: Torah study is a communal activity. The Torah is read every year in a cycle of weekly portions, and Jews all around the world read the same portion every week. Studying Torah in this cycle gives one a sense of being in tune with a kind of global spiritual momentum. There is the additional advantage, of course, of never having to worry about where to start, what to read, or when to read it. All Jewish calendars (available in Jewish bookstores, funeral parlors, food stores, and so on) indicate which portion is read in a given week, and all Chumashim (Pentateuchs—the five books of Moses) are organized according to these weekly portions. The most popular American Pentateuchs are The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by J. H. Hertz; Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, edited by David Leiber; and Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by Gunther Plaut. Each weekly portion is divided into seven sections called aliyot. If you wish to follow the practice described earlier in the chapter of reading a single aliyah every day of the week, you may need some help in identifying these aliyot from a rabbi or other knowledgeable Jew. Most Chumashim only indicate these divisions on the Hebrew side, and even then, only subtly.

I used to keep a Chumash by the side of my meditation cushion every day and read the appropriate aliyah after a forty-minute period of meditation. It might work better for you to sit in a chair or to have a shorter period of meditation before the reading. The important point is to have some period of contemplation before the reading so that you are sensitive to the more subtle forms of communication the Torah employs—not just the meaning of the words, but also the charge around them. It may take some time to attune yourself to this kind of material. Be like a hunter stalking prey (or like that lover constantly passing by the princess’s gate). It may take many days of waiting and watching before the deer appears or the window flashes open for a moment. Or in Whitman’s words, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.”