Rabbi David Walk
The Jewish ritual calendar is arranged to help us get ready for major religious events. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the period before Rosh Hashanah. For a month before this Day of Judgment, we blow shofar every morning, we add a Psalm at the end of services, and for a week we recite the special penitential prayers (slichot). This happens as well before our annual reacceptance of the Torah on Shavuot. The counting of the Omer leads us inexorably to this occasion. The Torah readings are planned so that the Tochacha (rebuke) in Bechukotai is always two weeks before Shavuot, and we always read Bamidbar the Shabbat preceding Shavuot. For me, though, the greatest groundwork we do to ready ourselves for the recreation of the revelation at Sinai is study Pirkei Avot or Ethics of the Fathers. This material is meant to get us into the right moral and spiritual mode to open ourselves up to let the Torah in. This custom goes back to at least the eight century, but sometime later a change was introduced. The tractate of Avot only has five chapters, but there are six Shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot. So, a sixth chapter was added some centuries later. It is actually the eighth chapter of tractate Chalah (one of the minor tractates, not originally part of the Mishenh). It is this chapter, also called Kinyan Torah (Acquiring Torah), which always read the Shabbat before Shavuot.
The subject matter of this chapter is to encourage people to study Torah with the proper attitude and enthusiasm. I'd like to focus on one particular passage, which I believe presents us with a specific difficulty. Here is the second Mishneh in the chapter: Said Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from
First of all this Mishneh, and much of Pirkei Avot, is directed towards the concept of the centrality of Torah study to Jewish life. Where do they get this idea? The Torah itself doesn't seem to make such a claim. The mitzvah of Torah study is derived from that verse in Shma: And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 6:7). The emphasis in this critical verse seems to be on teaching the Torah to the next generation, rather than making Talmud Torah the centerpiece of my life. Interestingly, the most frequently quoted verse about diligence in Torah study doesn't come from the Five Books of Moses: This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night, in order that you observe to do all that is written in it, for then will you succeed in all your ways and then will you prosper (Joshua 1:8). Why should that be? I think that, perhaps, this was a given for the generation of the desert, who had nothing else to do. However, once the Jews enter
But I have a bigger problem. Where does the author of our Mishneh, Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi get this idea that a Jew who doesn't study Torah is somehow a low life? The word he uses is nazuf, perhaps rebuked. He feels that anyone who neglects the Torah is outcast or even banned. What has this person done? Well, Rabbi Joshua says woe to this person because of the neglect of the Torah (above I borrowed the translation form the Chabad web site, insult). The word for neglect is elbono, and comes from the Hebrew word aluv. This term connotes even more than neglected, perhaps forlorn. I believe that Rabbi Joshua didn't really have a source. He concluded that the severity of abandoning Torah and its study can be logically concluded. Further reading of Rabbi Joshua's words leads to the inference that the terrible behavior is ingratitude.
The Mishneh informs us that the Tablets were fashioned directly by God, and this gift continues to resonate throughout creation and history. That's the echo heard everyday by the sensitive amongst us. It's not uncommon for someone who has thought long and hard about a gift to inquire about its use. I mean, I've never done it, but people have asked me if I'm enjoying a certain gift. When I really care about that person, I'm relieved when I can honestly say that I've gotten tremendous joy from a particular gift. Now, multiply that many, many times when someone has shared their most precious possession with you. No one would willingly hurt a beloved benefactor by ignoring, discarding or leaving bereft such a gift. How can many of us do that with the study of God's greatest gift to humankind? It just makes sense. Marvelous gifts aren't given to be locked in a vault, no matter how beautiful. They're bestowed to be cherished and used.
So, this is the greatest preparation for Shavuot. It's wonderful to get the haircuts, cook the meals, bake the cheesecake, but all of the reminders of the imminent approach of Shavuot arranged by our Sages were to remind us that Shavuot is a recommitment to Torah and, most importantly, its study. Good Luck!
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