This famous line from Yogi Berra captures a central concept in Judaism that in Hebrew is called חזרה, or repetition. It is the idea of going over something again and again until you know it almost, if not entirely by heart. This was a traditional form of Talmud study, and it is the way the ba’al korei, the Torah reader, learns what he or she will be reading from the Torah. It is found in the yearly Torah reading cycle, year in and year out reading the same words and stories. It is even tied in to the daily prayer services and their repetitive nature, with essentially the same prayers said three times a day to the point of memorization.
I was familiar with this idea long before I became an engaged and observant Jew. For many years, from the time I was in 5th grade all the way through high school, I would read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy annually (these days only every other year or so – I have a long reading list!). And if you grew up in the 60s and 70s you probably have fond memories of spending hours upon hours with friends, a turntable, and the newest record from your favorite band, playing it over and over and over, until the grooves of the record literally began to wear out.
I’ve always believed that that type of intense repetition gives one a level of familiarity, even intimacy, with material that just can’t be achieved in any other way. When I was in rabbinical school I studied with a professor who literally had the entire text of the Mishnah (all 6 orders) memorized. Occasionally he would play a strange game of talmudic machismo with us, challenging us to read the first few words of a mishnah – any mishnah – out loud. He would then complete the text from memory, as well as tell us what tractate, what chapter, and what number mishnah in the chapter we had asked about. I never saw him get one wrong, and we asked him about mishnayot that were in the middle of long chapters. Once, during a courageous moment, I asked him how he managed this seemingly herculean feat. He simply said “I go through the entire mishnah every week.” Then I asked him why. His response was fascinating – “I feel this is the only way to know the text the way the rabbis knew it (meaning the Talmudic rabbis). I suspect he was probably right.
The old story is that a young Talmud prodigy is being interviewed by a Rosh Yeshiva for acceptance into the school. The boy proudly tells the older scholar that he has been through the entire Talmud, despite the fact that he is not yet bar mitzvah. The teacher replies: “I am not interested whether you’ve been through the Talmud – I am interested in whether the Talmud has been through you.” One way things truly ‘get into’ us – into our bones, into our kishkes – is by going back to them time and again. And it is a great blessing that we have so many things worth revisiting. Each trip back brings us a renewed sense of wisdom, meaning, and faith.