All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “We are your own flesh and blood. Long before now, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led Israel in war; and the Lord said to you: ‘You shall shepherd My people Israel; you shall be ruler of Israel.’” All the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a pact with them in Hebron before the Lord. And they anointed David king over Israel.
II Samuel 5:1-3
I have been a member, this semester, of the staff of facilitators of two local adult study groups operating in the context of a very interesting new national educational project: 929.
There are (who knew?) 929 chapters in the Bible, from Genesis to II Chronicles. The project, whose main public face is Rabbi Benny Lau, a popular, charismatic, and liberal-minded Orthodox rabbi, seeks to create a pluralistic platform for ongoing Bible study that does not reflect “ownership” by any particular ideological or religious faction. The idea is that many people, from across Israeli society, will choose to participate in synchronized Bible study: One chapter a day. Thus, the project kicked off a year ago with the first chapter of Genesis.
Today’s chapter, whose opening verses appear above, is Chapter 5 of II Samuel. At five chapters per week (Sunday-Thursday), the Bible will be completed in the spring of 2018. The project (which has government and private funding) operates a website, which posts, every day, a collection of short essays, poems, cartoons, and videos related to the day’s chapter. The site also provides audio materials, for listening while driving, running, etc. The invitation to write something on a particular chapter is open, and contributors represent a broad cross section of Israel, including artists, academics, public figures, and just citizens. In addition, the project offers subsidies – for facilitation, rent, and guest speakers – to local study groups that follow the schedule, and publishes background materials for facilitators.
The Bible has been through a lot here in Israel during the past century. It has been used and abused by just about everyone. Some have treated it as a treasure map for archaeology; others as a military handbook. It has been invoked to set borders, to direct social policy, to serve as a “classic” in the curriculum. There are those who refuse to disentangle it from the net of rabbinic interpretation – and others who insist on reading it “neat.” It has been taught as the word of God and as a secular nationalistic epic, as a historical document and as a devotional book. And for many Israelis of recent generations, it is largely an unpleasant memory of cramming for the national achievement test in 12th grade. A decade or so ago, the severe shortage of Bible teachers in public schools led to the establishment of a program providing generous scholarships to the “best and the brightest” who were willing to commit to a career in the field.
Several years ago I was teaching an adult education class in a different context, and one of the participants, born in the 1930s in Libya, astounded all of us when we realized he knew the entire Bible by heart (with random access). In our time, it is rare to find anyone who has even read it all the way through. And the situation is only marginally better in the Orthodox world, where the Bible has been so submerged in midrash and commentary that people don’t know where the text stops and where the interpretation begins.
We all know that somehow the Bible is central to who we are (or who we are supposed to be), and where we are; yet for many of us, it is a dusty book on the shelf, hard to understand, a source of weighty quotations for ceremonies and monuments. So the idea – and the popularity – of 929 are refreshing and encouraging. Ahad Ha’am and other early Zionists envisioned the Jewish state as the opportunity to renew and revitalize Jewish culture, strengthening its roots while taking it out of the ghetto (and the yeshivah); they would have loved 929.