The Olympic Games inspire me. Athletes from around the globe exhibit the boundless capacity of the human body and spirit, competing yet also cooperating in the pursuit of excellence and accomplishment. The most impressive athletes, in my opinion, are those that return, making repeat showings from one set of Games to the next. These are the individuals so invested in their craft that they are willing to try again, to improve on a previous attempt and delve deeper into their passion in the hope of discovering something new. While some athletic seasons have their eye on a championship or title, the philosophy of repetition evokes dedication and a deeply rooted love of the game.
The theme of repetition is ingrained in our Jewish heritage. Each year, the Jewish calendar brings us the same holidays, and with them opportunities to observe the rites that constitute tradition. We read the entirety of the Torah scroll, portion by portion, week by week, all year long, until we reach the end on Simchat Torah and immediately rewind and start again. Shabbat caps off each week, punctuating our days with a respite from work and a recurrent reminder of our Jewish cadence. Given that our scripture is canonized and our liturgies set into formal rubrics, there is little deviation from the pattern of our religious practice. One can expect the elements of observance to remain constant from year to year, and it is this constancy that imparts connection across the generations, as well as meaning to the words we speak in prayer and the actions we take in the synagogue and in our personal lives.
If Olympic athletes sought to compete the same way every year, they would struggle to keep up. The Olympic motto, after all, is Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” With each successive competition, athletes seek to elevate the game through improved skill and continually better performance. Repetition without improvement risks stasis and perhaps boredom. In what ways can the reiteration of Jewish practice take inspiration from Olympic fervor in order to avoid these outcomes?
I faced this very challenge in leading a weekly Torah study group as a rabbinic Intern at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati. My task was to engage with parashat hashavua, the weekly text portion, with a group of vatikim, veteran text scholars. Though I was new to the group, the participants had studied together before, some for years or decades. I was to convey the majesty of these words, reverberant across the years, yet add a fresh take, avoiding redundancy and elevating the timeless lessons found in them. Although it is difficult to bring new interpretations of sacred text to a group of learned students, I took inspiration from the rabbinic sources for guidance. I found a refrain first introduced to me as a fireside song at summer camp. Rabbi Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). This maxim suggests that we may inevitably study the same texts over and over again, but the messages we take from them may change with each reading. Even a subject we know intimately can continue to inspire us when considered from a new perspective.
I encouraged my students to step outside of the parashah and ruminate on other factors. We argued about the authorship of Torah, the time period of its canonization, the role of grammar, and the disparate names of God found in the text. Each of these subjects offered a new turn on familiar material and generated new insights and personal reflections in my students.
Although the practices of Rabbi Ben Bag Bag come from a bygone era, there is a modern term for this idea of approaching familiar material from a new angle. In my education class at Hebrew Union College, we discussed the spiral curriculum in which a subject recurs periodically or annually, but the level of engagement, discourse, and mastery becomes deeper and more advanced with each iteration. By recognizing my students’ past accomplishments and encouraging them to reframe the biblical narratives already familiar to them in light of new ideas or interpretations, I hope we kept the spirit of lifelong learning alive. Each of us can become like an Olympic athlete returning again and again to reach new heights of erudition. The work of Torah study is never done; we move around the circle of our year like the interlocking Olympic rings. With each repetition, the context remains the same, yet we have the chance to grow if we are willing to take a turn.
Benjamin Altshuler is a third-year student at Hebrew Union COllege and a TJF Fellow at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio