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Where to Begin?

Last week, the yearly round of weekly Torah readings began again from Genesis. I've been thinking a lot recently about beginnings: how teachers start a course, introduce a class or open a school year; how songwriters and performers begin songs; how writers begin books and poems; and so on. Some begin with an attention-grabbing opening chord and throw the listener straight into the action. Others begin gradually, slowly building a groove and raising the temperature. Compare, for example, the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter in the clips below.

A similarly intriguing contrast exists between the opening page of the Torah and the opening page of the Babylonian Talmud. The Torah opens with a statement; the Talmud with a question. The Torah starts at Chapter 1, Verse 1; the Talmud on page 2a. The opening verse of the Torah arrives ex nihilo, no prior knowledge required. The Talmud's opening question - "From what time can one recite the Shema in the evening?" presumes a text called the Shema, a requirement to recite it daily, and an ambiguity about when precisely to do so.

First page of the Hebrew Bible, with commentaries

First page of the Babylonian Talmud, with commentaries

Our choices about how to begin are undoubtedly influenced by many factors, including what we’re beginning, when, where, and why. But I think that many of us also have a preferred style. At least I’m pretty sure that I do.

Unlike the Talmud I don’t begin with questions; I end with them. I think the word that best sums up my preferred style of beginning is “sideways.” When I can, I like to creep up on ideas from an unexpected angle, and surprise myself and those with me with a novel insight or question. Stories, pictures, music and humor are very useful tools for beginning sideways. They jog us gently out of business as usual and help us see things afresh.

All of which leads me to ask, sideways: Where do you begin? What’s your style?

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