Rabbi Sessler D’var Torah

The Art of Spiritual Reading

Like most of us, I became literate during grade school. In second or third grade, my mother started taking me to the local library, where I would choose the books that I wanted to take home and read. I used to read books in batches, an entire series of books at a time.  One series was about a group of five kids who experience various adventures together. This series of books is called “The Famous Five” (by Enid Blyton). I read many other series of children’s adventure books written by Israeli and non-Israeli writers alike. When I was older, I discovered novels by authors such as Amos Oz and Ernest Hemingway, and I would read their books one at a time too, until I completed the whole “series”. Similarly, I became enthralled by political biographies, and I would read them in batches as well: Israeli Prime Ministers, American Presidents, etc.

This way of learning, by systematically reading “all the books” on a given topic (or authored by the same writer), is very much a product of the prevailing culture around us. In the secular world, we read in order to accumulate more information, more empirical data (say in American history, or Israeli politics, for example). Or alternatively, we read for the aesthetic and intellectual gratification to be derived from a good book. In Judaism, the raison d’être of the art of reading is distinct. In Judaism we do not read only in order to learn, but we read and learn also in order to do more, and to be more. That’s why in Judaism we go back to the same books time and again. We read the same prayer texts in the siddur 3 times a day, every day, as long as we live. We read the same Torah every year, time and again, as long as we live. We read the same prophetic biblical passages in the haftarah every year time and again, as long as we live. Some people learn every day a page of Talmud until they complete the entire Babylonian Talmud every seven and a half years, and they continue to do so, some of them 7-8 times in their lifetime, as long as they live. Compare that to the rarity of an individual reading the same secular book twenty or thirty times in one lifetime.

In Judaism we don’t read “width-wise”, in order to cover more informational ground, but we read “depth-wise”, in order to elevate our consciousness, to transform us into more sensitized people, to make us more attuned to the omnipresence of the Source of all Life around us, including our own inner core. In Judaism, studying has a clear and pervasive objective, namely – the transformation of self and Being. The Hebrew word for knowledge is “Da’at”, which also means “mindfulness”, or “awareness”. In Judaism we learn in order to engrave in our consciousness time and again all the fundamental truths that we already theoretically know on a superficial cognitive level – that reaching out to others ultimately enhances our own robust sense of self, and that without constant and consistent gestures of mindfulness, awareness and gratitude to the Infinite Light through prayers and blessings, life is lived in a constant state of spiritual, emotional and social deprivation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sessler

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