בן בג בג אומר, הפך בה והפך בה, דכלא בה. ובה תחזי, וסיב ובלה בה, ומנה לא תזוע, שאין לך מדה טובה הימנה:
Ben Bag Bag says: Turn it and turn it, since everything is in it. And in it should you look, and grow old and be worn in it; and from it do not move, since there is no characteristic greater than it.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:22
I have a few fiction books on my shelf that I just can’t imagine parting with, even though it has been many years since I opened them up. Among them, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are particularly meaningful, because my father read them aloud to me when I was a child during a time when he was ill and it was challenging for him to spend any other kind of time with me. I’ve reread them many times over the years since then, and even got to read parts of aloud them to my son. As with many great literary works, I do sometimes notice details or themes that I completely missed in prior readings.
The quote above, attributed to a mysteriously named scholar, is often used to describe a similar phenomenon – we keep rereading the Torah, and the idea is to glean new meaning from it each time. In fact, traditional text study is so focused on finding meaning in the words that entire layers of study and commentary have grown around the core, to the point that many modern Jews don’t even know the difference between what is actually written and stories that came hundreds or thousands of years later.
It turns out that Ben Bag Bag was likely a student of Hillel’s, perhaps a convert to Judaism, and perhaps even the man to whom Hillel famously distilled the entire Torah entire into the Golden rule: that which is despicable to you, don’t do to your fellow. It would make sense to attribute this quote to that man, who came to Hillel offering to convert to Judaism if he could teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot.
I think there is depth to this quote beyond simply continuing to reread the Torah and finding new meanings within. What is uniquely advised here is an attitude towards life that focuses on deep, insatiable curiosity and also a commitment to remaining connected no matter the cost. You can have a relationship with anything (here it is Torah) that remains alive and vibrant no matter how old you grow, if only you remain open and engaged. That can be challenging, because relationships are not static – they change over time, and sometimes become challenging. If your attitude is one of curiosity, openness, and engagement then you will remain connected through anything.
This Shabbat, I encourage you to speak with your children about curiosity. What are you endlessly curious about? Have you had a relationship with anything or anyone (sports, music, movies, reading, your profession, a friend, family members) that you feel like you could keep turning and turning and never have enough? What’s like that for your child?