How does it affect our reading to think of the Torah as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel? And what implications does it have for the way we bring Torah into our daily lives?
A Biblical Choose Your Own Adventure
Perhaps you remember the classic book series, Choose Your Own Adventure. These were wildly popular novels published mainly in the 1980s and 90s, selling more than 250 million copies. In them, you—the reader—get to decide the course of the story. The books don’t have regular chapters; instead, every couple of pages, you select from among two or three options and turn to the corresponding page. It’s like a video game in book form, and it was a genre that marked an era.
In case you somehow missed this enormous fad, let me take you back to my own childhood, reading titles such as The Magic of the Unicorn, Mystery of the Maya, and Journey Under the Sea. I’m sitting in my room, way past my bedtime, with fingers and little slips of paper marking decision points between the pages. As one storyline ends, I backtrack to previous decisions and make different choices, attempting to discover each of the book’s hidden endings and the many paths that lead to them. I want to explore all the versions of the story, to grasp the full range of narrative options open to the careful reader.
It shouldn’t surprise you that I have a favorite book of this type, though this one isn’t published by Chooseco LLC. My Number One Choose Your Own Adventure story is—you might have guessed it—the Torah.
Bear with me as we consider this week’s Torah portion. Ki Tisa focuses our attention on the inscription of the two tablets and the sin of the Golden Calf. The drama begins with the conclusion of Exodus Chapter 31: “Upon finishing speaking with him on Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). Finally, Moses is ready to descend the mountain and deliver the Ten Commandments to the people waiting at the bottom.
Unfortunately, during his forty-day absence, the Hebrews have grown impatient, demanding at last that Aaron build for them an idol to worship as their savior. In his fury, Moses smashes the tablets of God’s law and pulverizes the Golden Calf. The ringleaders are executed, and a plague punishes the people for going astray. Finally, Moses returns to Mount Sinai for a second set of tablets, and begging on behalf of the Israelites for God’s forgiveness.
But if this is a Choose Your Own Adventure story, that doesn’t have to be the only ending. Perhaps we’ve got our pinky stuck way back in Chapter 19. Let’s turn back the pages to see another way the story could have turned out.
You might remember this passage from Parashat Yitro:
19:20The Eternal … called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up. 21The Eternal said to Moses … 24… “Go down, and come back together with Aaron; but let not the priests or the people break through … [lest many of them perish].” 25And Moses went down to the people and said to them:
20:1God spoke all these words, saying: 2I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: 3You shall have no other gods besides Me…. [And so on.]
In this version of the story, the Israelites maintain a respectful distance from the revered mountain, and—through Moses or by God’s very own voice—they receive the Ten Commandments personally and in spoken form. No tablets, no idols, only a direct connection between God and God’s people.
If these two stories are chapters in a single, coherent narrative, they are impossible to reconcile. But what happens when we consider the Torah a Choose Your Own Adventure novel? For such a book, it’s impossible to ask “how does it end?” because you know from the outset that there are multiple endings. The power of reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel is that you get to decide, from a range of given possibilities, which outcomes you prefer. Though you may read and appreciate each and every ending, you’re inclined to consider some “good” and some “bad,” some “successful” and others “failures.” You make the decisions, so yours is the moral compass used to determine what makes for a positive and meaningful story.
This is precisely how we are meant to read the Torah. As biblical scholar Benjamin Sommer writes, “[The book of] Exodus does not want the audience to know whether the lawgiving was direct, mediated, or a mix of the two. The book does, however, encourage the audience to wonder about this issue, to think through various possibilities, to see their strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps to think about their implications.” In other words, we have the ability to insert ourselves into the text, to determine which ending we desire. Do you want to turn to the “Golden Calf” ending or to the one that leads to direct revelation?
We bring this power to choose with us when we emerge from the text as well. When we strive to apply the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors in our day and age, we have to choose which ancestors to hold up as role models. We can’t assume that the Torah is a narrow text waiting for us just to read and obey; rather, the text, like its readers, is large, containing multitudes.
And so, this week and every week, may we consider the Torah and the morals it offers with expansiveness and respect. Let us examine its facets and explore its many paths. And let us do so with the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, placing ourselves within the text and then carrying it with us into our lives.
 Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale, 2015), p. 41.
 Alluding to the penultimate stanza of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855).
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”