"Ben Bag Bag says: Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. And in it should you look, and grow old and grey with it; and from it do not move, since there is nothing greater than it.”
Ok, I’m sure you have questions - who is Ben Bag Bag and what kind of name is that anyway? What is the “it” that he refers to? And how could “it" sustain our attention for our entire lives?
Who is Ben Bag Bag? An ancient rabbi who lived during the time of the Roman occupation, two thousand years ago. What’s with his name? Some believe that Ben Bag Bag was a Roman soldier who converted to Judaism, and the name was an alias to protect him against retaliation by the Romans (plot twist!). What is the “it?” Well, this quote is from a collection of mishnaic teachings called “Pirke Avot” (Teachings of our Ancestors), which is full of wise sayings which Jews traditionally read between Passover and Shavuot. It is a time when we mark the journey from Egypt to Sinai - from liberation to revelation. You’ve probably guessed by now that the “it” that Ben Bag Bag refers to is, of course, the Torah.
Here’s the question that is often asked: Why do we Jews read the same dang book every year? We already know how it ends (SPOILER ALERT - Moses dies, never making it to the Promised Land). It’s a question my students ponder as well, until I remind them that they are on their third full rewatch of Grey’s Anatomy, or their tenth reading of their favorite YA series, or their millionth listening to Taylor Swift’s latest banger.
Last week, there was an Op-Ed in the NYTimes by Dr. Anna-Lisa Cohen, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, entitled, “I’m Going to Spoil Your Favorite TV Show.” In it, Dr. Cohen shared the fascinating results from her study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, that viewers were just as likely to be immersed, engaged, and emotionally invested in characters whose story they already knew, even if they knew how their story ended. Even if our favorite show is spoiled, we derive just as much meaning from watching it!
How can this be? Dr. Cohen refers back to a concept coined in 1993 by psychology professor Richard Gerrig, called “narrative transportation.” Basically, when we relate to the characters in a story, we get swept up in what they are feeling, and we experience their hopes, fears, and triumphs right alongside them. The pull of this phenomenon has been especially strong for Jews when it comes to the Torah, because we not only identify with the characters, but in a fundamental way we are the characters. We are taught that the Torah was given not only to the Jews standing at the foot of Sinai, but to every one of us at every moment. SPOILER ALERT: This includes you!!
We know how this story ends - Moses dies, we get the Torah. So we read and re-read, argue, investigate, litigate, create, attack, explore and attempt at each moment to bring our own unique lens to this ancient text. It is a mirror and a mission statement. A myth and a message. A collection of morals and a morass of contradictions. But it is, ultimately, our story. It is up to us to write the next chapter, even as we turn it and turn it and find ourselves in its beginnings.
Cantor Eric Schulmiller