On Thursday nights the Staums have “Shaarei Torah carpool.” Our son Shalom is in ninth grade in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, and we have the pickup following Maariv at 8:45 p.m. Since the yeshiva davens Maariv just prior to dismissal, I often daven with them. When I arrive, I often hear the last few minutes of the pre-Maariv mussar schmooze being given by a rebbe.
On a recent Thursday night, as I opened the door to the beis midrash, the speaker’s voice thundered, “This is not stam Torah!”
[For those shamefully unfamiliar, I write a weekly essay based on the parsha titled “Stam Torah,” a takeoff of my last name. The word stam literally means “plain.” In the introduction to the collection of Stam Torah essays published a few years ago, my parents concluded their opening words of bracha: “By the way, your last name is Staum, which is not stam!”]
My first thought was that he must have seen me walk in and was making a joke, but he wasn’t even looking in my direction.
The speaker was prevailing upon the students that to grow in Torah and to appreciate Torah, one must invest emotional energy into it. If one learns Torah as if it’s just “stam,” it won’t be internalized. One must be passionate about Torah and be willing to toil for its attainment.
One recent morning during breakfast, I opened a vanilla yogurt I had brought with me, made a bracha, and ate a spoonful. It was so sour that I could hardly eat it. I realized the yogurt hadn’t gone bad, rather it was plain, not vanilla. It need not be said that Torah is transformative and uplifting. But if we don’t “add our personal flavor” of emotional investment, the Torah may seem plain and boring to us. It is for that reason that we daven each morning that Hashem make the Torah sweet in our mouths and the mouths of our children. The sweetness is there, but it is an acquired taste. We have to discover it and then merit it through our efforts.
The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) relates that when the nation stood at Sinai, God held the mountain above them and warned them that if they accept the Torah all will be well, but if not “there will be your burial place.”
There is a plethora of beautiful explanations and ideas to explain this intriguing Gemara. Why was it necessary for there to be an element of coercion at Sinai, when the nation had already committed themselves to accepting the Torah? One point seems clear: Hashem was sending the nation a message that Torah is not just a luxury for them but is vital for their national survival.
The Gemara (Yevamos 77a) relates that at the beginning of the monarchy of David Hamelech there was a virulent debate about his legitimacy, not merely as king, but as a Jew altogether. It was based on a dispute about a teaching of the Oral Law regarding how to understand a pasuk in the Torah. The question was whether his ancestor Rus was allowed to join the ranks of the Jewish people since she was born a Moabite.
The Gemara states that after much debate, Amasa ben Yeser pulled out his sword, held it aloft, and declared that anyone who dared to dispute the Oral Law’s tradition that validated David would be pierced with the sword.
Why the need for such a drastic threat?
My dear student, Shmuel Dov Klein, suggested that it is to symbolize that just as the Written Law is vital to our spiritual survival, as evidenced by the mountain being held above the nation at Sinai, so is the Oral Law and its traditions vital for our survival.
It is absolutely incredible that one law—one challenged tradition—altered the entire course of history. If David was indeed not a bona-fide Jew, then neither was Shlomo Hamelech or Moshiach, who descend from David. Without the Oral Law, the guidance, lessons, perspective and boundaries of Chazal we have no past or future.
Our commitment to Torah truly cannot be “stam,” without emotion. On the one hand, we have to learn it like our lives depend on it. On the other hand, our goal is to grow in our learning until it becomes an uplifting and pleasurable experience.
Of course, there is one notable exception, when “Stam Torah” is indeed a great thing…
By Rabbi Dani Staum
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is the rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead as well as a rebbe and guidance counselor at Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, New Jersey, principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor and a division head at Camp Dora Golding. He can be reached at [email protected].
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