Shavuos Day One
I’d like to begin by reading to you from an article from Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news source:
“Reports of the Talmud being a national classic in South Korea have been floating around for several years, but it’s now official: The country’s ambassador to Israel, Ma Young-Sam, told the “Culture Today” TV show that Talmud study is now a mandatory part of the country’s school curriculum.
In addition, it is said, almost every home in South Korea boasts a Korean version of the Talmud, and mothers commonly teach it to their children, who call it the “Light of Knowledge.”
Why? “We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews,” Young-Sam explained, according to a Ynet report. “Jews have a high percentage of Nobel laureates in all fields – literature, science and economics. This is a remarkable achievement. We tried to understand: What is the secret of the Jewish people? How are they, more than other people, able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are Jews so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud… We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud study to our school curriculum.”
“I, for example, have two sets of the Talmud,” the ambassador said. “The one my wife bought me, and the second was a gift from my mother.”
I’m glad my mother’s here today to hear this, I could really use a second set of Talmud…
I think this article really touches upon the confusion surrounding the studying of Torah. The confusion exists both outside of the Jewish community and within it. I remember not that long ago discussing with some fellow students at Hopkins how although I am studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, 85% of the people studying there and not going to become rabbis. This usually followed with a blank stare and a polite smile. Why would anyone spend their day studying Torah; be it Chumash, Mishna, Medrash or Talmud if they have no interest in becoming a rabbi? It makes no sense!
And, it is not only people beyond our community that struggle with this. We all do. We read every morning in the morning prayers that Talmud Torah, the study of Torah is k’neged kulam, the most significant mitzvah of all. And yet, when we think of personal growth, of spiritual development, study of Torah usually doesn’t make the cut. Typically, when people discuss growth, they think of prayer, of giving more tzedakah, of Shabbat. Torah study doesn’t strike us as a form of growth.
So let’s try to understand, why is Torah study put on such a pedestal?
I grew up being taught what is known as the ‘instruction manual’ explanation. Now being a stereotypical male made anything that had to do with manuals not very appealing. The other day we bought a new wireless printer and I simply could not figure out how to get the printer to work so I finally pulled out the instruction manual. I looked up to see Hindy standing over me with a camera, taking a picture of, and I quote, “the first time I ever saw you with an instruction manual.”
So what exactly is the instruction manual explanation of Torah study? It goes something like this. You buy a new phone and it comes with an instruction manual. Do you read it? Yes, no, depends. Let’s say you buy a new car. Do you read the manual? Most of us only open it up if the car is broken. But let’s say I give you a brand new airplane! Would you read the manual before taking it for a test drive? You sure betcha! There are people’s lives at stake here, not to mention my own! Flying an airplane is a huge responsibility. There is no way that I would fly an airplane without reading a manual, and probably a lot more than one! I would read every book I could get my hands on before taking the plane up in the air.
Well, goes the ‘instruction manual explanation’, if we read instruction manuals when lives are at stake, wouldn’t our whole life, from beginning to end, be included in that? How do we know how to live our lives? How do we know how to use our precious lives in a spiritual way? How should we eat? How should we interact with people? How do we interact with G-d?! How do we know how to do all these things?
And that’s where the Torah comes in. G-d not only created us but He gave us an instruction manual as well. It’s called the Torah. It teaches us how to live. It teaches us how to relate and interact with our spouse, our parents, our friends, our neighbors, our enemies, G-d, and last but certainly not least, it teaches us how to relate to ourselves. That is the instruction manual explanation of Torah study. Of course Torah study is important – because without it we wouldn’t know what to do and how to live.
But the truth is Torah study is much, much deeper than that. Last night we had approximately 70 people stay up the entire night studying Torah. We took a little break for some ice cream, another break a little while later for a BBQ, but overall from 10:30 last night until 5 AM we were studying Torah. Earlier in the week I was discussing with some people when was the last time that they stayed up all night. Some said they stayed up all night to study for exams or finals. Others, in the corporate world, stayed up all night working on major projects that were due to be presented the next day. And I thought to myself that the people who stayed up last night didn’t really fit those categories. They weren’t staying up because of a deadline, they weren’t trying to finish anything; they were just studying Torah. But then it dawned upon me that there is one more situation that people stay up all night for. And no, it’s not staying up all night with a newborn baby. I am talking about deciding to stay up; a situation where that is what you truly want to do. It’s a circumstance that I hope you once experienced in your life. Maybe you were in high school, maybe you were in college, and maybe it was at a later time in your life, and you met someone that you were crazy about. You fell in love with an individual who you just could not bear to part from. And even after you said good night, you would call each other and talk and talk and talk until the birds were chirping and the sun started to break through the sky.
That’s what we were doing last night. There were no deadlines; there were no tests or exams the next day. It was the talk of lovers who couldn’t bear hanging up the phone and parting their ways; just one more word, one more story. And that’s what Torah study is all about. Torah study is a dialogue. We open a Chumash, a Talmud, Maimonides, whatever, and we have G-d speaking to us from the pages. And we, in return, ask questions, we attempt to clarify, and gain a deeper understanding. King David, whose grandmother is the hero of Shavuot, writes in Tehillim, mah ahavti Toratecha kol hayom hi sichati. How I love Your Torah,” says King David, “I speak in Torah all day.” That’s what Torah study is – it’s love. It’s the only forum that we have for a dialogue between us and G-d. Yes, chesed is important, yes prayer is important, but Torah study is where G-d talks to us and we talk back. It’s the dialogue of lovers; it is the most profound way for us to connect to G-d. And that’s why we stayed up all night. We didn’t want to go to sleep. We wanted to hear from G-d and we wanted to talk to Him.
That’s Torah study. And it’s so much deeper and more beautiful than an instruction manual. The Torah is a love letter from G-d. And when we study Torah, we’re writing back. We’re engaging in the most mind-blowing conversation known to mankind; a dialogue of love between the Creator of the Universe and His beloved people.
So what we are celebrating today on Shavuot is not a book that makes us smart. Who knows, maybe Talmud study does make you smarter, maybe it doesn’t. We are not only celebrating the fact that G-d gave us an instruction manual to life. But what we are celebrating the relationship that exists between G-d and His People. We are celebrating a relationship of love. And on this day, on Shavuot, when the dialogue began, is the anniversary of the loving relationship between us and G-d. It’s a time to renew our vows, it’s a time to recommit ourselves to G-d and to His Torah, and it’s a time to celebrate our relationship and to live up to the beautiful statement that King David said, mah ahavti Torahtecha, kol hayom his sichati, that we should live a life where the Torah truly becomes beloved to us and that it’s precious words never leave our lips.