It took the Israelites 40 years to walk through the desert to the promised land.
It took the Torah study group at Congregation B’nai Tzedek more than half as long just to read about it.
On Thursday, the members finally finished reading the Torah — a project they started 22 years ago. From the first words of Genesis to the last words of Deuteronomy, they’ve finally read it all.
“We moved slowly,” Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt admitted.
That’s an understatement. Jews divide the five books of Moses into weekly portions so that the whole Torah can be read in a year. The group of people who meet every Thursday morning at this Conservative synagogue in Potomac moved more than 20 times as slow as that.
They began reading Genesis in 1996. “I wanted to take my time with it, go slowly with it, so we could really just soak in and absorb the wisdom of the text,” Weinblatt said. “Like those people who like to take their time with a fine cigar or a fine glass of wine, we took our time with a fine work of literature.”
Sometimes the Thursday morning group spent an entire hour-long session discussing just a verse or two.
Along the way, participants said, their appreciation of the sacred book at the center of Jewish tradition changed and deepened. And the people in the class — from those who started back in Genesis to those who joined just a year ago — marked one another’s life cycle events, too, whether it was sitting shiva, mourning relatives, or attending children’s and grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah services.
Amanda Bergman joined when the class was studying the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The story occurs in the third portion of the Torah, near the very beginning — but when Bergman joined, Weinblatt’s class had already been underway for a year, moseying through the creation story and the story of Noah at a highly deliberate pace. Bergman was immediately hooked.
“Over the course of these last 20 or so years, my concept of God has changed,” she said. “That truly is from studying the Torah and learning about all the different attributes of God and the different, if you will, personalities of God.”
When she joined, in her early 30s, she thought of God as “a person up in the heavens.” Now, she considers God to be a spiritual force present in nature and in people. “I’ve been able to look at God, I think, without blinders,” she said.
The study group became a community for her as well. When she suffered from breast cancer three years ago, the participants sent her cards, and she couldn’t wait to get back to class.
She was there Thursday, with just the final chapter left to read. Twelve verses. Weinblatt read the first one aloud in Hebrew to the 23 participants gathered around the table. Then he stopped. He repeated the first two words.
“I just find that to be so tender and so sensitive. Vaya’al Moshe — Moses went up,” he said. He noted that the verse mentions the tribe of Dan living in the north of Israel, when, historically speaking, the tribe would have lived in the south at the time of Moses and moved north later.
“A little clue, perhaps, in the writing that maybe this came a little bit later. It reflects when it was actually written, not necessarily in the time of Moses,” Weinblatt said, and then Bergman broke in. “Rabbi?” she asked. She held up a map of ancient Israel. She wanted to see where exactly Mount Nebo was, where Moses went up.
That level of detail and inquiry are typical for this group. They’ve taken field trips to the Library of Congress to look at historic documents and to Pennsylvania to see a re-creation of the Ark of the Covenant so that they could understand just how long those cubits they read so much about actually were. Weinblatt comes to class with a stack of source materials, which he flips through frenetically during his lessons. The pace of reading might be slow, but the lessons themselves are rapid-fire, drawing in Talmudic commentary, modern rabbinical interpretations, archaeological research, psychology and more.
Weinblatt says he doesn’t encourage anyone to take the Bible literally, saying that’s not a “Jewish way” to read scripture. In the study group, there’s a wide variety of views about the divine inspiration of the text, and he encourages everyone to keep an open mind. “If you believe the Torah is the product of human beings, you have to be open to the possibility that also the hand of God is involved here,” he tells them. “Conversely, if you believe that the Torah comes from God, you have to recognize that the hand of human beings was in here as well.”
That approach helped Helane Goldstein connect scripture to her own life. The day before the class finished reading Deuteronomy, Goldstein and her children were at a funeral for a friend’s relative. She heard her children talking in the other room, realized the similarity of their voices and thought of Isaac, blind in his old age and mistakenly conferring his blessing on his son Jacob instead of Esau.
“There is no other document I’ve ever read this closely, and don’t tell my lawyer that,” she joked. Reading at a word-by-word pace helped her notice phrases she otherwise would have skimmed over, which have stuck with her for years. She returns again and again to a few words in Exodus that say that God brought the slaves out of Egypt “on eagles’ wings.”
“Can you imagine! Being on eagles’ wings,” she says. “The people in biblical times — there were no airplanes. That they thought they could soar on eagles’ wings in their mind, in their heart; that their souls could be taken away on eagles’ wings, that’s amazing.”
Like many of the participants, Goldstein is a recent retiree; others go out of their way to make room in their work schedule to spend an hour at synagogue every Thursday morning. “It’s really one of the great pleasures of my life,” she said. “It’s very luxurious, to be able to study like that. Not everybody has a great teacher. Not everybody has the time. Not everybody has the community. So I consider myself a lottery winner here.”
The end of the Torah isn’t the end of the group. Next, the class will read the book of Joshua, which continues the story where the Torah leaves off.
After that, they might move on to other books of Prophets. Or they might take the advice of Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, who famously said of the Torah: “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.”
After 22 years, they might start all over again, in the beginning.