Hav­ing been raised in a sec­u­lar home with a racial­ly and reli­gious­ly mixed fam­i­ly, I was as sur­prised as any­one when, in my mid-for­ties and for rea­sons I still can’t explain, I joined a shul. I’d bare­ly set foot in a syn­a­gogue before this, and every­thing sparked my curios­i­ty. But the part that spoke to me the most was Torah study, which I attend­ed every Shab­bat morning.

I was as inter­est­ed in the peo­ple as I was in the texts we dis­cussed. A dozen or so reg­u­lars returned week after week. There was the pro­fes­sor who per­formed rap songs to teach his col­lege stu­dents about stem cells. The foren­sic psy­chol­o­gist who eval­u­at­ed peo­ple stand­ing tri­al for vio­lent crimes. The sci­en­tist who brought his own chu­mash from home, bulging with book­marks he’d fash­ioned from bits of plas­tic bags. The the­ater direc­tor. The bank­rupt­cy lawyer. The for­mer cult mem­ber. The handy­man. The con­vert. The athe­ist. The ther­a­pists – always lots of ther­a­pists around the table at Torah study.

Every Shab­bat we’d gath­er around the table, our chu­mashim open to that week’s parashah. We’d peer into the end­less­ly lay­ered text as if into a cave upon whose walls the rab­bi would focus an assort­ment of lights–this sage said this, that sage said that; if we look at the Hebrew root; if you trans­late it a dif­fer­ent way; accord­ing to one midrash; accord­ing to anoth­er rab­binic tra­di­tion. But respon­si­bil­i­ty for inter­pret­ing the text was not lim­it­ed to the rab­bi. That’s what made Torah study so live­ly, so alive: we all chimed in, rais­ing ques­tions, objec­tions, and free-asso­ci­at­ing based on our own var­ied fields of expe­ri­ence. We argued, we cracked jokes. Some­times we said, Ah! Often we laughed. Occa­sion­al­ly we shook our heads in dis­may. We don’t cher­ry-pick, the rab­bi would remind us. We don’t skip over those parts of the text we find trou­bling; we wres­tle with them

This is how you study Torah, I learned: in com­mu­ni­ty. In com­mu­ni­ty with oth­er peo­ple and in com­mu­ni­ty with oth­er sto­ries. The Torah is not sim­ply a book — it’s a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of voic­es that com­prise the oral tra­di­tion (Torah She­ba’al Peh) as well as the writ­ten (Torah She­bich­tav). Nor is Torah study bound by time. If the old­est part of the Torah is a stone thrown in water, and the ancient com­men­taries are rip­ples radi­at­ing from the splash, then the con­ver­sa­tions we have today, sit­ting at study tables all across the earth, add more more rip­ples, and the voic­es of tomor­row will expand them further.

After sev­er­al years of reg­u­lar atten­dance, I felt an urge to go deep­er in the way that I know how: by writ­ing. I pro­posed to write a non­fic­tion book about Torah study that would high­light the sto­ries of some of the indi­vid­u­als who chose to cen­ter the week­ly prac­tice in their lives. I was curi­ous about the vari­ety of rea­sons we felt called to this prac­tice, the var­i­ous under­stand­ings of what it was we sought. With the rabbi’s per­mis­sion, I embarked. But after a few months of con­duct­ing inter­views, I learned that not every­one in the group was com­fort­able with the idea. Enthu­si­as­tic as I’d been, the deci­sion to aban­don the project was not dif­fi­cult: if I had to choose, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty meant more to me than doc­u­ment­ing it. And yet the desire to deep­en my explo­ration beck­oned to me, still.

This is how you study Torah, I learned: in com­mu­ni­ty. In com­mu­ni­ty with oth­er peo­ple and in com­mu­ni­ty with oth­er stories.

One day I picked up pen­cil and paper and began, real­ly in an idle way, to sketch a sto­ry inspired by a Kaf­ka para­ble that had haunt­ed me – play­ful­ly, soul­ful­ly – for years. Titled My Des­ti­na­tion,” it tells in just a few lines the sto­ry of some­one who hears a bugle no one else can hear. This prompts him to set off for a des­ti­na­tion he can­not name, except to say that it’s away from here.” He brings no pro­vi­sions with him, even though he knows his jour­ney will be immense.” Why is he going, what does he seek? Even this is unclear.

I found myself – again, almost with­out think­ing – writ­ing from the per­spec­tive of a young girl who impul­sive­ly sets off after him. What issued forth was unlike any­thing I’d ever writ­ten. I kept going, half-bemused, half-amused; it seemed to me there was a kind of cos­mic joke here. If the des­ti­na­tion of the man in Kafka’s para­ble is vague, the des­ti­na­tion of my girl was even vaguer. And my own des­ti­na­tion, it soon became evi­dent, was still more opaque. I had no idea where I was head­ing, or why, but I felt com­pelled to write. At some point I stum­bled, bad­ly; I lost faith in what I was doing and came to a stand­still, writ­ing noth­ing for months. When next I picked up my pen­cil, I found myself begin­ning a dif­fer­ent tale, with a dif­fer­ent girl, inhab­it­ing a dif­fer­ent world. This girl was a searcher, too, even if her jour­ney was less lit­er­al. Only grad­u­al­ly did it dawn on me that the two tales were in dia­logue with each oth­er. Both girls shared a sim­i­lar rest­less­ness, a needling desire for some­thing inef­fa­ble, some illu­mi­na­tion or con­nec­tion that lay just beyond her grasp. I began weav­ing back and forth between the sto­ries, work­ing on one and then the oth­er, dis­cov­er­ing echoes between them.

Nev­er as a writer had I placed myself so whol­ly at the mer­cy of mys­tery. Some­times I felt like a spe­lunk­er, train­ing my flashlight’s thin beam on mark­ings I could bare­ly make out. Some­times I felt like a stone-skip­per, observ­ing the rip­ples my words made as they spread across a pond. Until, with a kind of won­drous thrill, I real­ized I was writ­ing my Torah study book after all!

For what is Torah study if not a jour­ney we under­take with­out expec­ta­tion of arriv­ing at a des­ti­na­tion? What is it if not a search that, despite yield­ing many dis­cov­er­ies along the way, will nev­er offer any­thing so final as a res­o­lu­tion? Torah study, it seems to me, might best be described as a way of remain­ing ever in motion, alive to the real­i­ty of imper­ma­nence with­in the struc­ture of an ancient ritual.

How fit­ting, then, that my two sto­ries, my two girls inhab­it­ing dif­fer­ent worlds, should remain also in motion, their ques­tions unsolved, their desires unre­quit­ed – but not frus­trat­ed, not flout­ed. Instead, as the space sep­a­rat­ing them grows slighter and slighter, it’s as if they begin to catch wind of each oth­er, until they are buoyed, the two of them, in a shared moment out of time, each alive, final­ly, to the joy of the jour­ney itself.

To & Fro by Leah Hager Cohen, out on May 21st

Leah Hager Cohen is the author of sev­en nov­els, includ­ing To & Fro, and five works of non­fic­tion, includ­ing Train Go Sor­ry. Among oth­er hon­ors, her books have been longlist­ed for the Women’s Prize for Fic­tion, named a final­ist for the Day­ton Lit­er­ary Peace Prize, and select­ed as best books of the year by the New York Times, Wash­ing­ton Post, San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle, Globe and Mail, Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, and Kirkus Reviews. Cohen is the Bar­rett Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Col­lege of the Holy Cross. She lives in Bel­mont, Massachusetts.