In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says: “Tapah Svadhyayesvara Pranidhanani Kriyah Yogah.” Sri Gurudev translates this as: “Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice.” (1)
The most important spiritual book studied by the Jewish people is the Torah. All other Jewish spiritual writings are based on it. To ensure that one could do svadhyaya properly, it became customary to read the entire Torah publicly each year, dividing it into weekly sections, called a parshah or sedrah.
You don’t need a large Torah scroll to do the weekly readings. To keep up with them at home, you would use a book called a chumash, (pronounced hu-MahSH). In it, you find the Torah divided into the weekly sections, as well as into chapters and verses, and into the five separate books. Newer ones combine the original Hebrew with a modern English translation.
It can be a challenge to study an entire parshah thoroughly each week. Often, one’s attention is attracted by a particular idea or question, maybe by a single word or letter. That is okay. As Sri Gurudev teaches, the purpose of svadhyaya is not to become a walking library. It is to understand what the Divinely inspired words are teaching about the Self. It can be of more spiritual value to ask oneself, “What is this teaching me, today?” or, “What would Sri Gurudev say about this verse or this topic?” than to read as much as possible. Sri Gurudev says, “Sometimes, learning can become an obstacle, if you don’t know what and how much to learn.”
Svadhyaya means reading spiritual books as if the most enlightened person we have ever met has taken time to speak with us privately. It is not the aim of svadhyaya to win debates or impress others. The goal is spiritual progress. That is why Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said, “If you’ve learned much Torah, don’t be conceited about it; you were born for this purpose.”(2)
Each time we read the chumash, we are like Moses on Mt. Sinai, perceiving Truth. Maybe we will be a bit more peaceful, as our attention moves from the unreal to the Real (Jnana Yoga). Maybe we will be filled with greater love for G-d and for others (Bhakti Yoga). Maybe we will be inspired to surrender the fruits of our actions to the Divine (Karma Yoga). Maybe we will read the Hebrew just for the sound-value of the words (Japa Yoga). But, as with meditation, reading the chumash begins as something we do. Gradually, it becomes an experience we receive.
Each time we read the chumash with an open heart, we progress a little further on our own, unique path. As we progress, we also find ourselves accomplishing the other two elements of Yoga practice that Patanjali mentioned. We realize how much we are filled with, and surrounded by, the Divine; then, we can more easily accept difficulties as being beneficial for us, and more willingly “surrender to the Supreme Being,” which, Sri Gurudev says, means that we will dedicate the fruits of our actions to G-d and to humanity. About 2,000 years ago, a teacher named Shimon the Just said something very similar: “The world is based on three things: On Torah (study), on worship of the Divine, and on acts of loving-kindness.”(3)
Almost every chumash has a commentary that is usually brief and easy to read. But how can you know which commentary is right for you? Ask another person who is also doing svadhyaya. If there is a Jewish bookstore near you, try browsing the various chumashim. You can quickly tell which comments are helpful for you.
There are several Web sites where you can find teaching about the parshah, but in the beginning of your svadhyaya, you might want to keep it simple and get your own impressions and ideas. Over time, you will find an endless number of new meanings and new experiences in your reading.
Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, a close friend of Sri Gurudev, once complained to his father, “Why do I have to read the chumash again this year? It’s the same as it was last year.” His father answered, “Yes, but are you the same?”
Enjoy your svadhyaya.
1. “INTEGRAL YOGA; THE YOGA SUTRAS OF PATANJALI;” SWAMI SATCHIDANANDA, translation and commentary; p. 93
2. “PIRKEI AVOT” (“CHAPTERS OF THE FATHERS”) 2:9
3. ibid. 1:2
About the Author:
Eli Mallon, M.Ed. has conducted Jewish congregational services, and served as an educator in both the religious and public spheres. He also currently works as an Attendance Counselor with New York City high school students. He has been active in meditation, spiritual study and healing practices for over 30 years.
Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Winter 2005 issue