Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”
Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: “I’ll give you a parable.
“A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’
“Said they to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’
“Said he to them: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors’ (Rabbi Jachter’s note—this line in itself is a highly provocative statement and merits serious and considerable exploration of its implications for the compatibility of Torah and evolution).
“Said they to him: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’
“The same applies to us. If now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said (Deuteronomy 30:20), ‘For it is your life and the lengthening of your days,’ such is our situation, how much more so if we neglect it...” (Berachot 61b; translation from Chabad.org).
This story should be borne in mind as we enter Shavuot this year. No less a personage than Rabbi Akiva teaches us by personal example (in addition to his wise parable) that devotion to Torah study is a matter of life and death for Jews. Rav Yehuda Amital once told an assembly of Yeshivat Har Etzion students that a Jewish community cannot survive without a sustained program of Talmud Torah. He named specific Jewish communities that did not flourish due to a dearth of Torah study.
Almost all of us today are challenged with demanding jobs in which we are expected to devote very long hours. For most, the idea of working from nine to five, five days a week, is a relic of an idyllic past. It is thus very difficult for most of us, struggling to find adequate time for our families in addition to our work obligations, to find significant time to devote to Torah.
The challenge is indeed great. The need, however, for regular devotion to Talmud Torah is greater. If one expects his children to continue in the path of Torah, parents must send a powerful example of Jewish commitment. I vividly recall Rav Yosef Adler’s son Dov reminisce how on every Shabbat he saw his father sitting on the couch engaged in deep Torah study. It is no coincidence that each of Rav Adler’s children are deeply devoted to shemirat Torah u’mitzvot—their father (and mother) set potent examples.
The opportunities for Torah study are greater in this generations than in any other. There are countless shiurim online that span a stunningly wide range of topics. While commuting, one can and should use the time wisely and listen to a compelling Torah shiur. Rav Pinhas Kehati opened the gates of Mishnah study with his Mishnayot Mevu’arot, leaving no one with an excuse for why he cannot learn at least two Mishnayot each day. Artscroll and sharp online shiurim have made Daf Yomi an option for everyone.
This Shavuot, each one of us must resolve to carve out some time each day to learn Torah. There can be no excuses. It is a matter of Jewish life and death. Just ask Rabbi Akiva.
By Rabbi Howard Jachter
Rabbi Howard Jachter is rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.