Everything I needed to know about New Years Resolutions I learned in eighth grade.
It was in 2003, during the week that Jews around the world began to read the book of Chemot, or Exodus, and my teacher, Rabbi Pressman, made a deal with us, his teenage students: “If you read the parsha, twice of the chumash and once with the Targum, for five consecutive weeks, I will give you $ 10, or 40 points to distribute during your next exams. “
It must have been one of those sad December school days that started before sunrise, so I balked at this unwanted interruption. But when the rabbi reiterated his offer the following week, I decided to accept it, ending that year with a perfect test average, aided powerfully by those precious bonus points for the constant review of the weekly serving.
As many people around the world kick off 2022 with vast to-do lists promising to improve everything from their diet to their finances, I can’t help but think of Rabbi Pressman and the lesson he has given me. learned, a lesson that sustained me well beyond eighth grade. He did not suggest any steps for leading a “spiritual life” or ways to become “more religious”. He never spoke in such amorphous terms; instead, he drew on the rabbinical command of shnayim mikra v’echad targum, an obligation to revise the weekly portion of the Torah twice in Hebrew and once in translation. It may not seem like a very inspiring quest, but, as Rabbi Pressman perfectly understood, it was a great introduction to some of the wisdom Judaism teaches us all: if you want to change your life, it is is sweat, not inspiration, you’ll need it. Change does not come from wish and hope; it just did.
Even, or above all, doing something that isn’t always thrilling pleasure. Like shnayim mikra: While Jews traditionally read the Torah on a 50-week cycle in the “main shrine” of our synagogues, Shul’han Aroukh, the source for normative Jewish law, states that everyone is obligated to review the weekly portion individually. You can fulfill part of this obligation by reading with the Torah reader; however, you still need to do the weekly reading once more in Hebrew, and then again in translation, for which many rely on Aramaic Targum Onkelos.
What do you get if you adopt the practice of shnayim mikra? As I learned in high school, you get a master class in addictive behavior, the only kind that will put you on the path to real growth. The process works at three levels: 1) it focuses on the practice of an entire community; 2) there is an obligation to do so; and 3) words never change.
This last point is particularly poignant. Each year I review the same creation story, the same Exodus, the same Leviticus, but I see the words and the events from my current perspective. Thinking about how patriarchs and matriarchs found each other changed when I met the person I was to marry. Understanding of conflict between siblings and parents has changed as my family has grown, as we suffer losses, and as we try to decipher moving guidelines for contemporary health practice. I don’t just read the part once, however; every year I read the story twice and the interpretation once. Each time through the text, I can reflect on what I believe happened, and then I am forced to have a different point of view, the point of view of the Targum, a translation that I don’t always understand but that I respect and study all the same. The logic is simple and unassailable: first, do something. Second, do the same again. Third, think about how the same thing is changing as you are. And, finally, do something that forces you to go out of your head for a short while, to get a whole different point of view.
This logic pushed me to continue the practice of shnayim mikra long after Rabbi Pressman kept his promise of extra points. I found ways to do shnayim mikra in just about any location imaginable, from Cancun to Latvia. Whether it’s with my shreds chumash, a brand new Artscroll or a bright iPhone screen with Sefaria, every day is punctuated by recordings with shnayim mikra. I know what the Torah portion of the week will be, so I am connected to my community, and I remain grounded in the annual narrative of the parsha because it will strike me differently this year whether it is the mikra or the Targum, traditional reading or translation. Beyond reading my community, I feel pressure from Duolingo to maintain my streak. Simply put, I haven’t broken my resolve for almost 20 years; if the same were true for everyone, cupcake shops would go bankrupt and there would be a gym on every corner.
And I have Rabbi Pressman to thank for that. Recently I picked up the phone and after nearly two decades called my wise old teacher. I told him that I was still there, that I was still studying, and thanked him for educating me not only on Torah, but also on how to live a life of purpose, consistency, courage and dedication. And if you, too, are looking for a New Year’s resolution that you could actually stick to, there are few better Jewish paths to take than saying yes to shnayim mikra. Of course, Daf Yomi, reading a Talmud page a day, is far more popular, with hundreds of thousands of learners all meeting, in person and online, to study. And many other Jewish texts offer you the pleasure of a small dose of learning over the days, weeks and months, from the ancient Mishnah to the writings of Shofetz Chaim. and his warnings against gossip. You can study some or all of them. But let me make a special case for shnayim mikra, because it is not only January but also the moment when we read the book of Chemot, whose name, spelled in Hebrew, also constitutes the acronym shnayim mikra v’echad targum. So forget about “living healthy” or “being more responsible with money” or whatever generalities you are inclined to promise now but fail soon. Make a much more worldly pledge – a few pages of text each week – and you’ll learn not only Torah truth, but the supreme satisfaction of finally learning to keep your New Year’s resolutions.