Today, after kiddush, Ner Tamid’s Book Club will be getting together for their monthly meeting. They’re doing something that I think is really cool; the book they’ll be discussing is called, The Woman’s Hour and the author of the book, Elaine Weiss, will be joining them for their get-together. Now getting the author to join you is an amazing way to set a club apart from the rest.
But you know what else is amazing, what’s amazing is that I’d bet that at least 70% of you had no clue that we have a book club at Ner Tamid!
And that’s too bad, because I think book clubs are awesome. I recently added joining a book club to my retirement bucket list. I know, I know, it’s pretty weird to have a retirement bucket list at this point in my life, and it’s even weirder that a book club is on that list. But it’s only weird because book clubs have a serious image problem.
When most of think of book clubs we think of a group, of all-women, by the way, sitting around on really old Victorian love seats, with that crinkly plastic cover over EVERYTHING, sipping tea.
And then there’s the usual suspects attending these book clubs. There’s the book club member who is domineering over the whole thing, who can’t stop going on with her brilliant insights in a faux British accent. There’s the lady who somehow makes every book discussion into her own personal therapy session. There’s one or two people who never read the book and are hoping to G-d that no one realizes. Apparently, there is a new profession out there, I’m not making this up, ‘group-book facilitators,’ to help book clubs run smoothly.
And it’s such a pity. Because book clubs have so many benefits. If you’re part of the club you feel compelled to finish the books that you start. I can’t begin to tell you how many books I’ve started and never finished! If you’re part of a good book club you gain fresh perspectives through a healthy exchange of ideas. So often my wife and I will read what I thought to be the same book, but we walk away with completely different messages! And book clubs are just a fantastic venue to connect deeply to other people, something we could really use these days. But if the modern book club needs a facilitator and is serving warm tea, then count me out.
MY book club, when I retire, is going to be a mix between a Yeshiva study hall, a Beis Medrash, and – a Super Bowl Party. It’s going to be wild.
For those of you who have never had the experience of walking into a Beis Medrash, let me explain: When I was newly-married, my chavrusa, my study partner from Yeshiva came over one night, and we learned in my dining room. We were doing what we do in Yeshiva; we’d study a passage, and inevitably disagree about how to understand something and so we’d argue back and forth. Now, arguments in Yeshiva are pretty fierce. Okay, really fierce. Yelling, screaming. But in Yeshiva, that’s normal, that’s how you get your point across.
So I’m studying in my dining room with my chavrusah for an hour or two, and then my friend leaves. As soon as he leaves, Hindy comes running into the dining room, and says, “Are you okay? Is he okay? Are you guys ever going to talk again?”
It took me a while to figure out what she was talking about, but eventually I explained to her, we’re best friends, this is how we discuss things. And so in my book club, if you say something I disagree with, I will call you out on it. We will yell, we will scream, and we will walk away enlightened. And, as I said, it’s going to be a super bowl party; hoagies, barbecue, maybe some artisan beer on tap, you name it – we’ll eat well. Isn’t that a book club you’d want to join?
Don’t worry I will send out invites if and when this ever happens, but today, I want to invite you to a different type of book club. It’s called 929. It’s a Jewish book club that currently has at least a quarter of a million participants. The Jews that participate range from one part of the Jewish spectrum to the other; from the most observant to the atheist and everyone in between. The book they’re reading is a classic; Tanach, the Bible.
There are 929 chapters in the Bible, hence the name 929, and the book club members read one chapter five days a week. In approximately three years these people finish learning all of the Chumash, all of the prophets, the Megillas, everything. In less than a year, they finish all of Chumash.
And it’s really a club. They have a website with summaries of each chapter for those who don’t want to read it. They have short modern commentaries on each chapter for those who want to go in a little deeper. Groups meet in private homes, in cafes, to study together. And some people just study on their own, as part of this gigantic book club.
And I have to tell you, the Bible is a really good book. The stories are fascinating, we all know that. And they’re also relevant. The great historian Paul Johnson has argued, the Torah is the source of so many of the values that Western civilization takes for granted; peace as an ideal, the dignity of every human being, equality before the law. And I would argue that its messages are still relevant, refreshing, and so often quite rebellious. Read the writings of the Bible scholar, Leon Kass or those of Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, on some of the most important moral issues of the day. Or Yoram Hazony, the Oxford-published writer who sees the Torah as a political text-book. I gave a lecture a little while back on leaders with moral failings – based on a comparison of King Saul and King David, I’m in middle of a series on #METOO, and to address the corruption of power, we read a story from the book of Judges. Tanach is relevant!
You could read Tanach as serious literature – Nechama Leibowitz and currently and especially through Yeshivat Har Etzion – Gush, this type of learning has exploded.
The Torah is layered, it’s deep, it’s profound, it’s poetic; there are sections you could read that make you want to cry, there are sections you could read that make you want to dance.
But it’s deeper than that – I’ll tell you a little secret. Last week, in my sermon, I mixed up my prophets. There were two prophets that lived in the time of King David, Nathan and Gad and I mixed them up. A few people came over to me and corrected me. I am sure the rest of you were just too polite… So I will be the first to admit that I need to review Tanach. But Judaism is not the Catholic Church. It is not just the priests who are expected to be knowledgeable, we all are. It’s our book! We are the people of the book. We need to know what we’re representing, don’t we?!
I’ll share with you another benefit – as a family, we recently got into audiobooks for the children. We go on long drives, I don’t love the idea of them watching videos the whole time, so we find good books on CD, and they’re quiet the entire drive. The last book series we picked out was called the Land of Stories. As I said, the purpose of the audiobooks was so that the kids will be quiet and my wife and I could catch up, but we drove all the way to Connecticut and we were so enwrapped in the story, we didn’t say a word the whole drive.
Anyway, the Land of Stories is about two kids who get lost in a book – literally. They magically transport themselves into the world of fairy tales and they interact with all the famous characters from all your favorite books, Peter Pan, Red Riding Hood, all the evil sorcerers etc. My kids love the Land of Stories; the author fleshes out the personalities of these fairy land characters, it’s a fast-paced plot, it’s great. But quite often they miss a whole lot of the story because they don’t know every single fairy story that’s being drawn upon. So my wife and I get it, but the kids don’t. They still like it, but they don’t appreciate it to the same extent.
If you look at the siddur, virtually all of the prayers that we say are either direct quotes or inspired by Tanach. Every blessing in Shemoneh Esrei is based on a different verse? Do you know the background story of that verse? Because when you know what the context is it makes all the difference. Over 80% of our daily prayers are written by King David. Do we know who he was? Because when we do know the story of the author of that verse, like we spoke about last week, it makes a world of a difference. That’s another reason to join this book club.
And there’s one last reason that I’ll share with you today – in this week’s parsha, we read the first paragraph of Shema. Veahavta eis Hashem Elokecha… A few lines in we read, you should teach your children. V’shinantem levanecha. And the question, the age-old question is how? It’s a question that has been amplified to the nth degree in the 21st century. Where are the youth? Why are children not engaged? Why don’t they find Judaism to be meaningful? How do we fulfil this directive of teaching our children?
The Torah, in the next line, gives us an answer. It doesn’t say send them to day school, it doesn’t speak about the influence of summer camps, or the impact of taking trips to Israel, although all those things are important. It says like this, “v’shinantam levanecha, you should teach your children.” You know how? “V’dibarta bam, by speaking about it, by studying Torah, “b’shivtecha b’veisecha, uv’lechtecha baderech, when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way.”
You see, Judaism is not taught, it’s caught. When we are engaged, our children become engaged. When we find even three to five minutes a day to study, and that’s exactly how long it takes to read a chapter of Tanach, that is the greatest education we can give our children.
929 chapters is a big commitment so let’s do like this; let’s try to finish the five books of Moshe, the Chumash. Starting this week I will give a summary of the daily chapter, adding an insight or two, between mincha and mariv. I will try to record the summary, for times when I’m not there or you’re not there, and so it will be on our website and on iTunes. The program organizers are putting up an English website which will be filled with podcasts and articles on each chapter. Currently there is a website but it’s all in Hebrew. And in about 35 weeks, we’ll be done all of Chumash. (We’re actually two weeks late, they started in Israel two weeks ago. We’ll find a way to catch up, don’t worry.)
One day in the future, I will hopefully invite you all to join me in my Superbowl-Bais Medrash Book Club but for now, I invite you to join me for something which I think you’ll find even more fulfilling, more educational, more beneficial to every part of your spiritual life. And most importantly, it will ensure that we are passing on our passion and love of Judaism to the next generation.