Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            My father OB"M was a very good man, but he was not a religious man.  He had a lot of difficulty coming to terms with my becoming observant.  In some ways it just inconvenienced him having a religious fanatic in the house, but he was also concerned when I went to Yeshiva University that I was investing too much time and effort into my Jewish studies, and therefore might not succeed in business and life.  When I came home for the summer after my junior year in college and announced that I wanted to be a rabbi, my father was very pleased.  At first I didn't get why this should make him happy.  However, he soon explained that now it made sense that I should work hard on my rabbinic studies because it was a career choice.  He would have encouraged me to study physics if I had announced that I wanted to be a physicist.  And the two studies would have been equally clear to him.  I'm afraid that my father's 'practical' approach to religion is very common in our day and age.

            Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Eztiyon in one of his speeches to the Yeshiva discussed a certain kipa wearing professor who defined himself as an observant secular Jew.  Most of us wouldn't call someone who wears a kipa all the time on an American college campus as a secular Jew.  But this extremely honest gentleman wanted to explain that even though Torah defined his ritual behavior, it didn't permeate his thought process.  He believed that he could think, feel and, even, do as he pleased, as long as no technical Torah rules were broken.  Reb Aharon went on to explain that 'A person may be a shoemaker, a physicist or an economist, but if Torah lives within him and the focus of his life is the aspiration to "sit in God's house all the days of my life" – then this person lives a life of Torah.  Such a person does not feel that Torah limits or constricts his life; rather, he feels that it guides and inspires him.'

            The great writer and religious thinker C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) pointed out that when a person speaks about "real life," he refers to those elements of life which he values most highly.  Sadly, I think that many Jews make a distinction between their Torah values and real life. They're saying that Torah is relevant only within limited areas of their life.  This is a problem.  To combat this position we refer in our prayers to the Torah as Torat Chayim, the Torah of Life.  According to Rav Lichtenstein there are many reasons for this.  It comes from God the source of life, it gives life, it is alive and grows from generation to generation, and, unlike cultures which glorify death, our Torah occupies itself with life and sanctifies life.  But the moat important reason is that Torah understands life and its necessities, and has something to say about every possible aspect of life.  Torah is about life and its issues, which is why the ideal life is the life of Torah.  This life is one in which we live with Torah at its center.

            Unfortunately there are many of us who live lives with whole areas which we view as outside the realm of Torah.  I think that we can apply the famous statement of Shamai to this issue.  In Pirkei Avot we quote Shamai as saying that we should make our Torah keva (1:15).  Now the word keva means set or permanent.  Usually people understand Shamai's instruction to mean that we should set aside regular times for Torah study.  But I would like to suggest that he meant that we should build our lives around Torah and its principles.  Make it the stable foundation upon which we build our lives. 

            In our prayers we refer to Shavuot as z'man matan Toroteinyu, the time of the giving of our Torah.  We believe this to be true.  It is the time when God gave us the Torah.  But just like Yom Kippur is the time when God granted us atonement, we have turned the day into one of working hard to access this atonement; we should similarly, on Shavuot, endeavor to access this Torah being offered.  It's our job to make this time of the giving of our Torah into the day of our accepting the Torah.  And this must be done every year.

            I find it fascinating that right after the Ten Commandments were given with such fanfare at Mount Sinai comes the Torah reading of Mishpatim.  In this parsha are, perhaps, the most mundane and boring mitzvoth in the Torah.  Here are the laws of slaves and lost articles, the rules for damages and sexual impropriety, and the instructions for watching an animal or taking care of someone else's clothes.  We learn how to conduct business and be a mentch.  It's only after this humdrum material that we have the moving story of the Jews' total commitment to the covenant of Sinai:  We will do and we will listen (Exodus 24:7).  The most inspiring reception of the Torah is one which takes the Torah everywhere one goes.  An acknowledgement of the supremacy of the Torah in the synagogue is hardly impressive.  However acquiescence to the sovereignty of Torah in the workplace and on the playing fields is very stirring.

            When we judge our annual acceptance of the Torah, I believe that there are two areas in which we must weigh our progress.  While inspecting my progress in the areas of Torah study, ethical behavior and moral business practices, do I feel the exquisite joy expressed in the verse:  Happy are we! How good is our portion!  How beautiful my heritage (preliminary morning service)!  That would be in keeping with the obligation to be joyous on the festivals.  And secondly, is my Torah commitment spreading to new areas of my life?  That question is critical to making my Torah life my real life.   

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