The Revolutionary Nature of Learning Torah

| Simhat Torah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 15, 2006 / 5767

This weekend marks the solemn conclusion of Deuteronomy and the joyous beginning of Genesis as we celebrate the holiday of Simhat Torah. Far from simply being about children, Hershey bars, and caramel apples, it is a time to reflect on committing and recommitting ourselves to words of Torah. Professor Ed Greenstein of Tel Aviv University laments the pediatric focus of this holiday. He writes, “Simhat Torah should develop into a stimulus to mature Jews to reconsider the study of Torah, or at least to take Torah seriously. What are all those lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants and the rest of them dancing with Torah for anyway? [Learning Torah] enables us to see the many levels of serious themes in which the Bible deals. More than ever are we capable of penetrating to deeper reaches of the biblical psyche” (Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays, 155). This journey to which Greenstein alludes however begins with a commitment to learn and the desire to question. Through inner and outer engagement, Torah refreshes itself anew and we, as students, reap its fruits daily. In this spirit, a particularly beautiful teaching is offered by Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom (also known by the acronym of his initials, Ralbag; a prolific bible commentator who lived in fourteenth-century France) at the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy.

Addressing himself to the latter part of the verse, “Moses was buried in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beit Peor and no one knows the burial place to this very day” (Deuteronomy 34:6), Ralbagqueries as to the secretive nature of Moses’ burial. What is the import of such a rite? Why must the burial be hidden from the eyes of Moses’ own flock? In a deeply sensitive interpretation, he offers three reasons for this cryptic rite. First, Ralbag explains that God was concerned that people would turn Moses’ resting place into a devotional site and in turn, transform Moses into a deity. The prooftext for this reason may be found in the expression “opposite Beit Peor” — for we know the Israelites engaged in idolatry in Peor and so the burial site is more than strategic, it is ripe with meaning. Second, our commentator points out that burial involves a degree of humiliation. God sought to protect Moses from humiliation. And so Ralbag roots this explanation in the phrase “va’gai,” “in the valley.” Linguistically, he connects the Hebrew gai to ge’ut “pride” so as to say that God buried him with pride. Third, Ralbag hints at an important aspect of leadership. He explains that just as Moses was separated from others in life, so too was he separate in death. Thus, Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom offers a unique window into the divine sensitivity and love for one of God’s treasured servants.

Still, of all the reasons cited by Ralbag, I, as a teacher and student of Torah, am most deeply moved by his lesson in leadership. To learn Torah is to be a revolutionary in today’s hurried world. Just as God separates Moses, and that distinction brings with it not only the gift of leadership but also its concomitant share of loneliness, so too the learning of Torah. While immersing one’s self in the study of Torah enriches one’s life, it also makes one keenly aware of the yawning divide between the world in which we live and the ideal expressed by Torah. May this coming Simhat Torah be an opportunity for all of us to become leaders in learning.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah,

Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.