About fifteen years ago, a group of college students visited Ner Israel. These were students with no religious background whatsoever, and they were being given a tour of the Yeshiva. So to really give them the full experience they were paired up with a couple of us in the Yeshiva and we were instructed to study with them whatever section of the Talmud we were studying.
I was paired up with a young, bright guy, Jeff and we sat down to study. Before we really jumped in, I decided to explain to him how the Talmud works; how every page of the Talmud is predicated on a verse in the Bible. But the problem is that these verses are often enigmatic and so the rabbis had to provide an explanation as to what each verse means. At times, there was more than one opinion, and many pages of the Talmud are filled with debates as to what the appropriate interpretation is. One sage would bring a proof to his interpretation, another would question it, and back and forth. As time went on, I explained to him, some sections of the Talmud became difficult to understand and later rabbis came along and offered interpretations. Other rabbis argued, questioned and challenged, and provided alternative understandings. And so, this enterprise called Talmud study was a rather involved intellectual pursuit of the real meaning of each verse in the Torah and through the ultimate goal was to better understand what we should do in each circumstance.
And as I’m coming to my final point, Jeff’s eyes are lighting up. He’s finally understanding what Talmud study is, why it’s so involved, and why we’ve been debating these fine points of law for so many years. And just then, a guy, a fellow Yeshiva student walks by, with his eyes tightly closed, waving his hands wildly, and at full volume singing, “Ah-na-na-na-na-na-na!!!”
Jeff turns to me and says, “What the heck was that?”
“How does THAT match up with anything you just told me?!”
And it was a very good question. Because I was giving Jeff the Torah-as-a-manual explanation. You see, one way of looking at Torah study is to understand it as reading an instruction manual. Now, I imagine I am not the only person who does not read instruction manuals ever. I used to. But it’s a complete waste of time. You ever buy anything from IKEA? They come with these cute little manuals that look like a comic strip. They have this guy who doesn’t look like he’s human who somehow builds the dresser in three easy steps. Maybe it takes three steps because he really is an alien, I don’t know. What I do know is that most instruction manuals are either completely unhelpful or just unnecessary. In Israel, on the side of the boxes of Corn Flakes, it says this: Step 1 – pour corn flakes into bowl, Step2 – pour milk into bowl. Step 3 – Enjoy Cornflakes.
Wait, what’s next?
This is in Israel!! These guys built the Iron Dome and you’re giving them instructions on how to eat Corn flakes?!
So that’s why I don’t read instructions. I just put them straight into the trash. But! If you gave me an airplane, I would read the instructions before I fly the plane. Because that’s a big deal. I’m not going to mess around with flying a plane without reading instructions. I will read a library of instructions before flying that plane.
And so the Torah is none other than a manual to life. And life is a pretty big deal. We could waste our lives or we could use them constructively. And so studying Torah can be understood as a detailed, circumstance by circumstance, instruction manual for life.
But if the Torah is just a manual to life, then it does not explain why that guy walking around with his eyes closed was getting all emotional studying it. You never see anyone getting excited about watching a Do-It-Yourself video on YouTube. Why was this guy getting so worked up? And why is it that if you walk into any Yeshiva you will find so many of the students studying with a fervor, with a passion. Why?
That’s what Jeff was asking me.
So there’s another way of looking at the Torah and that is to see it not as an instruction manual but as a love letter.
You know, there’s this point in dating, somewhere between it’s not serious at all and whoa, this is really serious. It’s a very tender sweet spot in the middle where you’re trying to figure out where this is all going. So when my wife and I were dating and at that exact chapter, she called me one day and I missed the call, and she left a message. I was walking out of class with some friends, listened to the message, “oh yeah, it’s from that girl I’m dating….”
And then two minutes later, when no one was around, you know what I did? I listened to it again. And then you know what I did later that night? I listened to it again and again and again!
Now don’t give me that look like I’m the only person here who’s done that before! When you get a voicemail or a letter from a loved one, you read it over and over again and each time you do so, you try to decipher it. You try to understand the person behind the letter. It’s not about the message! What tone of voice was she using? What type of paper did he write on? Through the message, you get to understand the sender.
The Baal HaTanya, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this what Torah study is all about; it’s an opportunity to understand G-d. Every time I perform a Mitzvah, I’m fulfilling G-d’s will. I’m doing what He asked me to do. He asked me to shake the Lulav and I did. But when I study the laws of the Lulav, I am understanding His will, I am understanding Him! There is an aspect of Torah study completely independent of any practical observance. Its purpose is to understand the author. This is the closest man can get to G-d.
The Ba’al HaTanya uses a shocking analogy and describes the study of Torah as a form of intimacy. It’s the merging of our mind with G-d’s mind. And when you think of studying Torah as reading a love letter you could understand why when you walk into a Beit Medrash, it’s not a quiet library, it’s a place roaring with emotion. It’s an emotional spiritual activity like no other. Personally, I find in-depth Torah study to be one the most exhilarating experiences that I’ve ever engaged in.
But like most good things in life, appreciating the joy of Torah study is an acquired taste. Remember when Manischewitz was the only Kosher wine available? And then Kedem started producing Kedem 144. We thought it was the fanciest thing on earth. The truth is, it was just a glorified cooking wine, but that’s all we had back in the 80’s and 90’s. And now?! Ha!
I never had a very sophisticated taste in wine until I got married. My father-in-law spoiled me and would always bring some really fine wine every time he visited us. And it’s really an unbelievable thing – you ever read the back of a wine bottle? They say the most bizarre things. This exquisite merlot has hints of tree bark, vanilla, and purple… purple is a color, not a taste, and why would anyone want tree bark in their wine?! I used to think the people writing these things were all tripping on psychedelic drugs. But you drink enough of it and you taste that tree bark and vanilla! (Not sure about the purple)
Torah study – the joy of Torah study is certainly an acquired taste. It takes time, it takes energy, but eventually, one comes to a place where there is truly nothing more gratifying or enjoyable than in-depth Torah study.
And it’s an investment worth making. For all the parents out there who send their children to Jewish day schools, you will be spending somewhere between 100 to 300 thousand dollars on each child’s Jewish education. And it’s worth every penny. Why do we do it? Why do we invest so much into our children’s Jewish education?
Some people tell me it’s so that their kids will marry someone Jewish. That’s a really bad reason. If it’s really all about marrying Jewish then we should just throw all that money at the people working on engineering our genes and engineer our Jewish babies to be six inches taller, a little smarter, and blond. Solved.
I don’t want my children to just marry Jewish! I want them to be Jewish! Passionately Jewish! And there is nothing more distinctly Jewish than Torah study. Family values are universal. Rituals are common to virtually very faith. But an entire peoplehood built around the in-depth study of sacred texts, that’s ours! And it’s the most magnificent legacy out there!
If you want to make that 100 to 300 thousand dollar investment go the extra mile, lead by example. If Torah study is just a subject in school… I’ll tell you, I haven’t looked at a biology book since 11th grade. But if it’s something that mom and dad find the time to engage in, if grandma and grandpa dedicate time every week to Torah study, I’d put money that their children and grandchildren will see their Jewish legacy in a completely different light. You’re spending all that money already. I guarantee that if you take an hour out of your week to try to acquire that taste for Torah, to perhaps study the same topics that your children or grandchildren are studying in school so you could discuss it with them, or to just study anything at all, the dividends of your investment will multiply.
Many of you here today will be saying Yizkor. There’s a custom to give charity in the memory of a loved one. Many people have a custom to give charity at the time of a Yahrtzeit. Most people come to shul at the Yahrtzeit of a loved one to say Kaddish. And the rationale behind all these customs is that by performing a Mitzvah in the memory of a loved one we are showing how they impacted us, and in doing so, it’s a merit for them. Even though they are in a world where they cannot perform Mitzvos, every good deed we do in their memory impacts them in some way.
So I have a suggestion, and Max, please don’t kill me. Keep your donations. Every time you want to show how your parents and grandparents impacted you, every time you want to bring a merit to deceased spouse or sibling, go to a Torah class that week. The most Jewish thing you can do to bring pride to your ancestors, the greatest merit you can bring to your family, and the closest you can get to G-d; Talmud Torah, the study of our scared texts.
In the Koran the Jewish People are described as the People of the Book. But at some point, we became the people who had a rabbi who knows the book.
There are a couple of professions where the job of the professional is to push him or herself out of business. Mental health professionals, doctors, and rabbis. If it’s just about knowing what to do and when, then yes, all you need to do is call the rabbi and there is no need for you to study. But if Torah study is about connecting to G-d, connecting to your heritage, connecting to your history, studying the same books that your ancestors studied, then it’s a taste we all need to acquire.
Hold the donations, come to a class. It’s the best investment into Judaism that you can make.
There’s a story of two chassidim, Berel and Shmerel dancing on Simchas Torah. Everyone else is wiped out and is sitting down but these two chassidim are still dancing and dancing. The rabbi watches them dance, turns to one his followers and says, Berel is going to stop dancing before Shmerel.
And sure enough, Berel stops dancing and Shmerel continues. They turn to the Rebbe, and they ask him, how did you know who was going to stop dancing first? And he said, it’s simple. Berel was celebrating all the Torah he studied this past year, and he studied a lot. He completed two tractates of the Talmud, ten tractates of Mishna, three books of the Torah; he had a lot to dance for. But Shmerel, he wasn’t celebrating what he studied already. He was dancing for all the Torah he hoped to study in the future. And the possibilities are infinite, and so he his celebration is endless.
Some of us have studied a lot this year, some of less so. But we are all the people of the book. Pick up a flier, check out the many classes given here, or go online and check out the thousands of classes given all over the world. Acquire a taste for this distinctly Jewish experience. Do it for your children, do it for your parents, and do it for yourself. And may we celebrate, all of us together, tonight and tomorrow and throughout the entire year, the infinite gift and the intimate closeness of Torah study.