The Joy of Torah

Va'et-hannan By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 5, 2006 / 5766

This past week, I have been receiving many photographs of the destruction raining down on northern Israel. Among the many images, the most moving one was a modest picture taken in the city of Safed. Protected within the four walls of a bomb shelter, it is an image of a rabbi teaching Torah to a group of students. As a page of Talmud sits open before each participant, the rabbi teaches energetically to his receptive audience. For me, this demonstrates the power of learning within the Jewish community — and the extent to which learning has the potential to shape each and every one of us. Even at a time when our thoughts are undoubtedly elsewhere, Torah remains at the center of our identity. This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va’Ethnanan, underscores the importance of Jewish learning.

Deuteronomy chapter 6, verses 4–9 relates what is known as the Shema’, “Hear Israel,” and its first paragraph beginning with v’ahavta, “And you will love the Lord your God.”At the essence of this text, we find an emphatic proclamation concerning Torah: “Impress (v’shinantam) them (words of Torah) upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.” Three elements emerge regarding the teaching and learning of Torah. First, Jeffrey Tigay explains the import of the Hebrew, v’shinantam, “to repeat them . . .it refers to oral teaching, which remained the primary means of instruction in Israel even after the spread of literacy” (Tigay, JPS Commentary: Deuteronomy, 78). Jewish learning is quite dissimilar from university studies where the ideal is often reading to oneself in a library carrel. Far from this model, Jewish text is meant to be viewed as a conversation. More importantly, it is about repetition — repeating one’s learning until it becomes part of one’s identity. Second, the verse focuses on children. The author of Sefer HaHinukh, Rabbi Pinhas haLevi of Barcelona, quotes the Talmud regarding teaching, “The community in every locality is obligated to support children’s teachers. A town in which there are no school children is a town without a future (Shabbat 119b).” Children are the link in the tradition; the earlier one intervenes to shape Jewish identity, the more successful one is at insuring the Jewish future. Solomon Schechter Schools and Camp Ramah go a long way toward providing such an experience for our children. At the same time, these programs do not absolve the parents of personal involvement in their children’s learning. Third, we see that the learning of Torah is continuous — that is to say, even when “one lies down and rises up.” So integral is Torah to our lives, it must be constantly flowing within and around us.

This week, which marked the observance of Tish’ah B’Av, the Ninth Day of Av, commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout our history. It is also an auspicious moment to recommit oneself to learning Torah. Notably, Torah study is forbidden on Tish’ah B’Av with the exception of texts that reflect the day — Job, Jeremiah, and excerpts connected to the destruction of Jerusalem. Why did the rabbis forbid the study of Torah on this most tragic of days? Learning Torah represents life and absolute joy. And so, on the saddest day of the calendar, we mourn by denying ourselves the joy of Torah. May this week remind us all of the treasure of learning — that it is indeed a life giving and joyful act — and more than that, it is who we are as a Jewish community.

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.