Just a few months before he was killed in a 1996 bus bombing, my JTS classmate Matt Eisenfeld held a party in his Jerusalem apartment. It was a Saturday night, but it was hardly a typical Saturday night event. It was a siyyum, a conclusion of study, celebrating his completion of Masechet Kiddushin, a long and difficult tractate of Talmud.
I’ll never forget the sense of joy at that party, as Matt taught us a passage from the tractate, and we ate and drank in his honor. It felt like a party with purpose, a party that honored his personal commitment to study, and it inspired me to begin to learn Talmud on my own. I may not finish a whole tractate, I thought at the time, but I can start…and I’ll see where it goes.
Since then, I have completed a few tractates of Talmud, and I’ve always thought of Matt at the concluding ritual.
But when I began to leyn, or chant, from the Torah, it never occurred to me that I could do the same. Jewish tradition doesn’t have any ritualized siyyum for reading the whole Torah aloud. So when my cousin told me he had hosted a Kiddush when he finished reading the text, I knew my next move. I started to keep track of the aliyot that I read, and I began to request the ones I hadn’t read yet for each next assignment. It got me to synagogue regularly, and it helped me get to know the people in the new communities I was joining. And this past summer, when I read the final aliyah that I had left, I hosted my own Kiddush, which I like to refer to as my Torah party.
With Simchat Torah around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Torah party. The thing is, it’s not really a thing in the Jewish community. Yet. But I think it should be.
Rituals are a powerful way to honor the things that we feel are most important. This one came with great food, Torah candies, and even a Torah cake! Instead of singing “Mazel Tov,” we sang “V’ha’eir Eineinu,” praying with our voices that God would open our eyes to Torah, and “V’lo Nevosh L’olam Va’ed,” that we need never be ashamed of our connection to Judaism — or our desire to celebrate that connection with song and dance.
Here’s a self-evident fact: Parties are good, especially when they celebrate things we value. And for me, learning Torah is something to celebrate. Growing up in a non-egalitarian synagogue, I was always envious of the guys who got to read Torah. As I grew older, I encountered men who knew much of the Torah by heart, since they had leyned whole sections of the Torah weekly to make money during high school or college. When I began to leyn after college, I immediately fell in love. I began to read as often as possible, realizing early on that signing up for a Torah reading was a good way to guarantee that I’d get out of bed on Saturday mornings.
Not everybody has to learn a tractate of Talmud or read the whole Torah to have a party. Celebrating our accomplishments doesn’t require that we have impossible standards. In fact, I believe that anything worth doing is worth doing — badly! It’s not necessarily what we were taught in grade school, but it certainly takes the pressure off of trying to do everything perfectly, which, for me, would undoubtedly look a lot like not doing anything. When I reached my life dream of arriving at the peak of Kilimanjaro, I was pretty proud — and I didn’t care that I had leaned on porters and my guide to get to the top.
The guides and porters on Kilimanjaro had a phrase that they repeated many times each hour. Pole, pole: slowly, slowly. It turns out that slowly is the only way to get things done anyway, one step at a time. I often think about Matt and how he plodded away at Masechet Kiddushin. When he started rabbinical school, he didn’t know how to learn a page of Talmud…but slowly, slowly.
That’s pretty much the attitude I’ve had since I started reading Torah. I gave myself credit for aliyot even when they didn’t go perfectly. There were times when I had a bad head cold and couldn’t keep the trope straight, or when I stayed up too late Friday night and didn’t prepare as well as I should have. Now, when I read those aliyot again, I’ll have an opportunity to improve my reading, but planning that Torah party was the thing that got me started.
The best part about the party was hearing other people tell me how they were going to start reading Torah or put their efforts towards another goal. In the middle of a summer filled with trauma and debate, I left that day feeling like we had celebrated something uncontroversial, meaningful, and just plain fun. Now, I’m eager to attend other parties, along the same theme: Torah parties, Mishnah parties, or “I read Hebrew for the first time” parties. It’s time we start celebrating our own goals and giving meaning to our spiritual lives.
Maybe each of us can learn something new this year and host a Kiddush, or a brunch, or a champagne toast to inspire others. I know I could always use a little inspiration, so please, whatever the cause, be sure to invite me!
Abby Sosland’s Torah party came complete with Torah candies