So a little while ago, I went to the doctor and he told me I have to get some more exercise. I thought to myself, no big deal, I do exercise. I play roller hockey every once in a while. It’s a fast-paced game, great cardio workout – I’ll just play more often.
But it didn’t work.
It didn’t work because there was nothing compelling me to play every Saturday night. I knew it was important to exercise, I liked playing hockey, but it was too open-ended, there was no set goal, and so it never went anywhere.
I thought about getting myself a Fitbit, but I realized it’s a lot cheaper just to count steps in your head. 1043, 1044. Also, I found that Fitbits kind of control people’s lives. You ever see someone pacing in their office, and you’re like, hey, is everything okay? And they’re like, yeah, my Fitbit says I need to take 900 more steps before the end of the day.
Finally, I decide that the only way I was going to exercise was if I had a goal. The goal I decided upon was to run in the Jewish Caring Network’s 5K. (This is not an appeal to support my run. But feel free to, it’s a great cause.) And it worked. It worked because I had a goal. My goal was to run from the start line to the finish line, something I could not have done a year and a half ago. I had a secondary goal to beat all the other rabbis, who for the record all have longer legs than me. I beat them all except for Rabbi Marwick and I was very excited for a rematch this year but apparently, he will be “out of town.”
We all know that exercise is important for our health, but what distinguishes between the casual exerciser, that often times does not get things done, and the real thing is goals. Whether that’s running a marathon, whether that’s hitting the gym a certain amount of times a week, or whether it’s tracking the amount of steps we take each day – without those concrete goals, we tend to not accomplish very much.
I was thinking about my stint as a casual exerciser, and I realized there are other areas in my life, areas of great, actually, far greater importance, where I was also quite casual. Most mitzvot are concrete – you could check off a box if you did it or you didn’t. Put on tefillin, check. Lit Shabbos candles, check. Prayed, check. Gave a certain amount to charity, check. But there’s one Mitzvha that is so important and yet is entirely open-ended, and that is Torah study.
On the one hand, as we said this morning, Elu devarim, these are the things which have benefit both in this world and the next, and it goes on to list all the big Mitzvos, honoring one’s parents, lovingkindness, having guests, etc. etc. v’talmud Torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah is equal to all other Mitzvos! And tonight, we will say, ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu, that Torah is our life, that the study of Torah is the essence of our existence. And thank G-d we do learn Torah! We listen to the baal koreh read the parsha, many follow along in the English translation, some look at the commentaries, some will come to a class from time to time, some have a Jewish book that they are making their way through… but how much of our Torah learning is casual and how much of our Torah learning is goal-driven?
Our Sages in the Talmud teach us that when we get to Heaven, the first question they ask is, kavata itim baTorah? Did you set aside time for Torah study? Not did you study Torah. But did you make it keva. Keva means set, scheduled, goal-driven. Casual Torah study is not enough.
My son came home from school the other day with a flier from a national program called, Masmidei Hasiyum. It’s a program for children in grades 1 – 8. Every verse of the Torah that they study, every Mishna they learn, and every line of Gemara gets them a ticket for some raffles. That’s not unique. What IS unique is how it works. They call a hotline and enter how much they’ve studied each day. And after entering how much they studied, the automated tells them how many verses or Mishnayos they’ve learned in total. And I watch my son call in and hear, “You’ve learned 436 verses.” And that compels him to do more! I’ve done 436, I want to do 500! I want to do 1000! It’s a Torah Fitbit and it works! (http://agudathisrael.org/masmidei-hasiyum-children-take-an-active-part-in-the-siyum-hashas/)
I know many of you know the following story, and so I apologize for repeating it, but it’s worth repeating. My father had a younger brother who was tragically killed as a soldier in the IDF in 1982. To memorialize him, my grandparents invited my late uncle’s friends from Yeshiva and from the army, to come study as a group in my grandparents home, in his memory. And they did. And then three weeks later, they came back to study again. And then three weeks later, they came back again. During this time, the young men grew up, they had families, they moved all over the country, my grandparents moved from Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak to Petach Tikvah, but every three weeks these men would come and learn some Torah together. About a decade ago, my grandfather passed away, they still kept coming. And just over a month ago, my grandmother passed away as well. By providence, a video highlighting the learning of this group aired on the day my grandmother died. Every three weeks for 37 years, these men got together and learned Torah. Using our exercise model, this was the Iron Man of Torah study. And we all thought after both grandparents passed, it was time for this class to come to an end.
In my grandmothers will she wrote, I have one request of my children, only one request – that you continue to memorialize my son the way we always did.
Sure enough, two weeks ago, a group of men made their way to my grandparents apartment. The people who lived there are no longer, but the spirit of Torah, the flame of our Peoplehood, will not be extinguished.
Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu; Torah is the lifeblood of Judaism. It is both a guide to life, it is our family history, it’s a book that our ancestors collectively pored over for millennia, it is the word of G-d, and according to the mystics, a peek into the inner working of G-d’s mind, whatever that may mean. In short, Torah is everything. It is all-important and a casual relationship with Torah is simply not enough.
They say a story of a fabulously wealthy man who lived somewhere in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. One day this man shows up at the top Yeshiva and says to the dean, to the Rosh Yeshiva, “Find me the top bochur, the top student, for my daughter. I’ll take care of him, I’ll make sure he studies his whole life.”
So the Rosh Yeshiva points the top student out, the wealthy man meets with him, they talk about marriage, and the student is on board and so the wealthy man takes him back home with him.
True to his word, even before the wedding, he builds him a mansion, he gives him an American Express platinum card, you name it, whatever this young man needed, and even what he didn’t need, he would give him. At every function the wealthy man would attend, he would take his future son-in-law with him, and let everyone know, “this is my chosson, he’s top bochur in his Yeshiva.” And everyone would look and everyone would nod approvingly.
But there was one problem, the chosson never met his kallah. He was never introduced to his bride. This went on for months. Finally, the groom, a little sheepishly turns the wealthy man and says, “Um, can I meet your daughter? When are we going to get married? What’s going on here?”
And so the wealthy man says, “I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t really have a daughter. But all my friends have daughters, and they show off their grooms, I wanted to also have a groom.” (Rav Elimelech Biederman)
Tonight and tomorrow is the holiday of Shavuos. Shavuos is the holiday that celebrates our relationship with the Torah. I am sure many of you cooked up a storm, you made the best cheesecake ever! You got a haircut, you got new clothing, you bought flowers! Like the wealthy man who went all out for his groom, everything is ready, everything is beautiful and perfect, but we need the bride! Without a relationship to Torah, we’re left with an empty mansion, a wedding without the bride, a chuppah for one.
This is the holiday during which we commit ourselves to this special gift called Torah. Thankfully this is not a one-size-fits-all type of Mitzvah; there is practical law, there is the intellectually stimulating Talmud, uplifting writings of the Chassidim, the philosophy of the great Jewish thinkers, the self-help of the Mussar movement, the fascinating stories of Tanach. There is so much there!
Three thousand three hundred and thirty two years ago, our ancestors, newly freed, stood at a small mountain and committed their lives to the Torah. Let’s make a commitment to their commitment by studying that precious gift, not causally, but with a plan. By choosing a Jewish book, a sefer, a class, a certain amount of pages, of verses, whatever it may be. I’d be more than happy to make some recommendations. Make a goal, a plan, a schedule. Track it. Spiritual exercise is no different than physical exercise. May we merit to taste the sweetness of Torah study and the even sweeter taste of having spiritual goals and accomplishing them.