June 22, 2024
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Taking Full Advantage: A Shavuot Cheshbon Hanefesh

A Day to Appreciate

Shavuot—the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah—is the time when both Hashem and the Jewish people reflect upon our relationship with the Torah He gave (and continues to give—“notein HaTorah”) us.

Shavuot is the only chag besides Sukkot, when the Torah mandates simcha (Devarim 16:11). Chazal (Pesachim 68b) understood this as requiring a physical celebration. This seems strange. Shouldn’t Shavuot’s commemoration of Matan Torah necessitate a spiritual celebration? Rashi (Ibid. D”H De’bainan) explains that the physical celebration shows that we are accepting of and pleased with Matan Torah. Though a spiritual commemoration might have reflected the essence of Matan Torah, it would not have expressed our satisfaction with it.

The Central Pillar

Shavuot is the time to appreciate Torah learning’s unique value to both the world and to each individual.

Though Shimon Hatzaddik identifies Torah learning as one of three pillars that support the world (Avot 1:2), the pillar of Torah is the most important one. “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam—the significance of Torah learning is equal to that of all other mitzvot.” (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

This explains why the world’s existence hinges upon Torah learning. The Torah describes the sixth day of creation as “yom hashishi”—as opposed to “shishi,”—unlike its description of previous days of creation. Chazal (Avodah Zarah 3a) explain that this teaches us that Hashem conditioned Creation on the events of a future special “sixth day”—the sixth of Sivan—when the Torah was given. Had we not committed ourselves to Torah, the world would have been returned to “tohu va’vohu (nothingness).”

Rav Chaim Volozhin (Nefech Hachayim 1:16) understood that just as creation hinged on our original acceptance of the Torah, so the world’s continued existence depends upon Torah learning. If there would be even one moment completely bereft of Torah learning, the world would cease to exist.

Along these lines, Rebbe Meir begins Avot’s last perek by emphasizing that one person’s Torah learning makes the entire world’s existence worthwhile. Pirkei Avot begins with Shimon Hatzaddik’s assertion that the world exists for the purpose of Torah learning. It ends with Rebbe Meir taking this notion a significant step further by portraying even a single person’s Torah learning as justifying the existence of the entire world!

Our Purpose

Talmud Torah is not just the world’s purpose; it is also the Jewish people’s. As the mishna in Avot (2:8) tells us, “If you have learned much Torah, do not take special credit; it is why you were created.” The world was conceived as a context for Torah learning; the Jewish people were created to be the vehicle.

This explains why Hillel taught that one who does not study Torah deserves to die (Avot 1:13). Torah study is the central reason for our existence. If we do not fulfill our role, the gift of life is—chas v’shalom—taken from us.

Rabbi Akiva reinforced this point in his response to those who questioned his teaching of Torah in violation of the Roman prohibition. Rabbi Akiva compared a Jew’s need for Torah learning to a fish’s dependency on water (Berachot 61b). Torah is not just an enhancer of life; it is a condition for it. Though we can physically live and breathe without Torah, our spiritual life hinges upon its nourishment (see Maharal Chiddushei Aggadot, Avodah Zarah 3b, who makes this distinction between the physical and the spiritual).

The Greatest and Highest Life

Returning to Rabbi Meir’s words in Avot (6:1), he also asserts that Torah learning makes one “greater” and “higher” than all other creations (see mishna vav for the wording “gedolah Torah”). The second mishna of the sixth perek adds that Torah learning elevates us (not just relative to other creatures, but also) to the highest version of ourselves.

This is how Rav Yosef viewed his Torah learning. The Gemara (Pesachim 68b) reports that Rav Yosef explained his custom to celebrate Shavuot with a “triple-meat” sandwich by asserting that without Torah learning, he would have amounted to no more than “the average Joe/Yosef.”

Understanding the Importance

Why is talmud Torah so important? Firstly, it is the one pursuit we can (and should) devote our free time to. While chesed is performed in response to a situational need and tefillah is recited at set intervals, Torah can be learned at any and every free moment. It is the “constant” meant to fill our days with meaning.

Additionally, Torah learning facilitates familiarity with Hashem, through His wisdom. When learning Torah, we connect with Him by immersing ourselves in His thought.

Rashi’s formulation of Rav Yosef’s words (“if not for the days I learned Torah and elevated myself … ”) links them to Avot’s focus on Torah’s elevating quality. Though mitzvot earn us reward, only Torah learning elevates and distinguishes us.

There are many ways people seek to distinguish themselves. There are the Joe DiMaggios and Joe Namaths of sports and the Joe Bidens and Joe Liebermans of politics. Though some of their accomplishments are impressive and impactful, only Torah learning truly develops us in a meaningful way.

This appreciation lies at the heart of Chag Shavuot. To celebrate Shavuot properly, we need to reflect upon how central Torah learning and values are to our identity. Celebration without this reflection is superficial and merely physical.

Heaven’s Cry

Sadly, many do not appreciate the great value of Torah learning. Avot’s sixth perek teaches that a bat kol (heavenly voice) cries daily over those who insult Torah by not taking advantage of the opportunity to study it (Avot 6:2). Torah learning is both extremely valuable, as well as grossly underappreciated.

This lament is especially relevant to our times. The Industrial Revolution—and subsequent technological advances—shortened the amount of time needed to complete our workload, while electricity lighting up our nights has expanded our nocturnal productivity. Together, these advancements afford us an unprecedented amount of free time.

But, how do we use this time? Unfortunately, much of the world devotes it to leisure and entertainment, using their free time for activities that do not enrich them or impact their surroundings in any meaningful way.

Many mefarshim see this as the problem Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa highlights when he teaches that, “one who stays awake at night … has forfeited his life.” The problem is not being up at night in and of itself, but—rather—staying up at night without learning Torah. Night time was created for Torah study and sleep. One who wastes it does not deserve the life he has been gifted.

To make matters more challenging, we live in an age of constant distraction. It is, in fact, no further than the palms of our hands. Though people have always been drawn to meaningless pursuits, easy access to smartphones, social media and entertainment has increased the temptation dramatically.

Shavuot is the time for us to consider the contrast between the great value of Torah learning versus the amount of time we commit to it. We should reflect upon what we gain from the activities we presently invest our time and energy in versus the growth we would achieve, if we devoted that same time to Torah learning.

Translating Our Good Intentions

Many of us have tried to devote more time to Torah study, but have struggled to actualize our good intentions. After Shavuot, when we return to the busyness of everyday life, our hopes of intensifying our Torah study often fall by the wayside.

Chazal addressed this problem with a practical recipe for success. It begins with being “kovea itim l’Torah.” Devoting a set time each day and night to Torah learning reinforces our appreciation of its importance and gives us a better chance of continuing consistently (see Shabbat 31a—which lists whether we were kovea itim as one of the questions we are asked when judged in the afterlife).

Ideally, we should set aside the first and last hours of each day, what the Torah describes as, “… when we go to sleep and when we awake,” (Devarim 6:7) for Torah study. Learning first thing in the morning shows that Torah is our priority and ensures we learn before the days get busy. Learning at the end of our day frames the day with holiness and infuses our sleep with thoughts of Torah.

Studying with a chavruta—in a beit midrash—and joining a set daily learning program (like Daf Yomi) will also help us maintain a commitment to learning. Learning with a chavruta expands our commitment beyond ourselves and makes us responsible to someone else. Learning in a beit midrash adds atmosphere to our learning. Instead of learning in a vacuum, we are part of our community’s cadre of learners. Finally, joining a set daily learning program links us to a global community devoted to a common Torah goal.

Time and Travel

In addition to the set times we devote to learning, our appreciation of Torah’s value should inspire us to actively seek additional opportunities to study it. Most of us have many additional opportunities throughout the day to learn.

Travel time is an excellent example. Many of us spend hours commuting each day. What do we do while driving, or on the train, bus or plane? This travel time is an excellent opportunity to listen to a shiur or read a sefer. By doing so, we increase our Torah learning, reinforce our appreciation of Torah and fulfill the words we recite thrice daily in Kriyat Shema—“You should speak about them (words of Torah) when you sit in your home and when you travel on the road … ” (Devarim 6:7)

Torah Ambitions

Another important facilitator of Torah learning is the fostering and reinforcement of the ambition to become a talmid chacham. In addition to our commitment to fulfilling the mitzvah to study Torah, our appreciation of the Torah’s value should inspire us to seek to grow our Torah knowledge.

It is never too late to acquire Torah knowledge. Rabbi Akiva began his meteoric growth at age 40. Most of us are already ahead of him and just need to maintain our focus and effort.

What Our Life Amounts To

Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, told the story of a rabbi who once visited a town for the first time. The locals gave their honored guest a tour—taking him to see the shul, the school, the mikvah, and, finally, the cemetery. The rabbi was shocked to see that all the matzeivot (gravestones) memorialized children who had died young: Reuven, 12 years old, Shimon, 11 years old, Levi, 15 years old and so on. “Was there a plague here?” he asked. “A pogrom? Why did they all die so young?”

“No, rabbi,” the mayor explained. “In this town, we keep track of the time we spend each day learning Torah and doing mitzvot. At the end of the day, we count up those hours and write them down on a little pad. At the end of each week, month and year, each person tallies his total hours of Torah study. When someone dies, we add up the total amount of time they spent learning Torah and doing mitzvot. For this person, it was 10 years, for that person 12. The ages on the gravestone are their Torah ages, not their biological ones,” (see Hamizrachi weekly Chayei Sarah, 5781).

Chag Shavuot is a time to reflect upon how to make our days, months and years count. The Tchebiner Rebbe used to challenge his chasidim to consider what would happen if someone already deceased was given the opportunity to return to this world for a few days. How would he spend his limited time? Having gained (after death) a better appreciation for time well-spent versus time wasted, the newly-revived man would surely rush to the beit midrash to learn as much Torah as possible and certainly wouldn’t waste his time on idle chatter and meaningless activities. We, too, should appreciate the limited time we have in this world and use it well.

Personal and Communal Cheshbon HaNefesh

Our communities do so much good. We send our children to fine schools, daven in beautiful shuls and are deeply committed to chesed.

Our commitment to Torah learning, on the other hand, definitely needs strengthening. Let us use Chag Matan Torateinu as a time to reflect—personally and communally—on the importance of Torah learning and the ways we can deepen our commitment to it.

Doing so will, b’ezrat Hashem, enhance our celebration of the chag and maximize our Torah growth in the coming year.

Chag Sameach!


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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