Monday, May 30, 2016

Bechukotai: Yes, We Should Study Torah--But to What Purpose?

Bechukotai

“If you will walk according to My laws….” (Lev. 26:3)

            Torah study is one of the most important mitzvote, commandments, for Jews to pursue in their lives. In explaining the above quotation which begins our Torah portion, Rashi (1040-1105), prince of Torah Commentators, says that it means, “You will study much Torah.” It is customary for B’nai Torah/Torah scholars who learn in yeshivote/Jewish academies to recite the following prayer, called the Hadran, upon completing a masechta/tractate of Talmud:

הדרן עלך מסכת ____ והדרך עלן דעתן עלך מסכת ___ ודעתך עלן לא נתנשי מינך מסכת _____ ולא תתנשי מינן לא בעלמא הדין ולא בעלמא דאתי
Here is the transliteration—perhaps you might wish to read it, noting that it is written in Aramaic (no, not Arabic), a mixture of Hebrew and Greek, and the lingua franca (spoken tongue) in Israel from about the time of Alexander’s conquest through the Talmudic period:

Hadran alakh Masekhet _____ ve-hadrakh alan da'atan alakh Masekhet _____ ve-da'atekh alan lo nitnashi minekh Masekhet _____ ve-lo titnashi minan lo be-alma ha-din ve-lo be-alma deati.

Here is the translation: We will return to you, O’ Holy Tractate [Name] of the Talmud, and you will return to us; our mind is on you, Holy Tractate, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, Tractate, and you will not forget us—not in the World of Judgment and not in the World-to-Come (that is, the Afterlife).  

Isn’t it remarkable that, once we complete studying a book of Torah, it becomes for us a witness, a mayleetz yoshare, an Intercessor for our Good Deeds with God? And yet, Ethics of the Fathers (Perek) tells us, “If you have studied much Torah, do not brag about it; you were created expressly for this purpose.”
               
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) states that, unlike ordinary laborers, those who study, or labor in, Torah, do not receive any tangible reward. A shoemaker or computer programmer, for example, receives a salary for what they produce, but the reward for Torah study is—more Torah study. Furthermore, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) takes a verse from The Book of Job, “Man was created to labor” (5:7), and interprets it to mean that the main purpose of Man’s creation was for him to labor in Torah. There, a Rabbi Yeruchem argues that God created most flora and fauna in their complete, or near-complete, state, and that they need to grow only in size to become what they were meant to be. Human beings, on the other hand, must continually strive toward perfection, while aware that true perfection is unattainable. It is the striving, not the goal, that counts.
           
Returning to the verse above. “If you walk according to My laws” represents the Journey. We must never cease in our striving toward spirituality, with Torah study as our chief means and reward.
           
Still, I must dare to gently disagree with the giants of Torah—Rashi, the Chofetz Chaim, and Chazal, the Talmudic Rabbis—whom I quoted above. I am not worthy to shine their shoes scholastically. But, writing this with Mother’s Day past and with Father’s Day still to come, I recall the example of my parents z’l, who managed to combine their love of Torah with the need to provide for their families.

My mother was an English teacher on both the elementary and later college level (she got her Master’s degree while in her 70’s), and my father an industrial chemist, who, when I was young, ran a Science Club on Sunday mornings at my Hebrew Day School and our family shul, the East Side Torah Center. Under his guidance, we peered through a microscope at fly blood corpuscles and bee’s wings. He also brought home scientific oddities: a glow-in-the-dark tube, painted with luminous paint, and an early prototype transistor radio with a wire-and-alligator-clip-antenna that we attached to a chickenwire fence to listen to the Drifters on Radio Station WABC with Disc Jockey Cousin Brucie.
           
After the rabbi of the shul passed away in the mid-1990s, my father, for many years president of the shul, did his best to maintain Shabbos and weekday minyanim/services, fundraising, serving as parttime shames-caretaker-sexton, and doing whatever was necessary for the good of the shul he and my mother loved so much, until he passed in 2000 and she in 2005.

As with most synagogues of that time, there was a “Big Shul” (the Main Sanctuary), and a downstairs “Bais Medrosh,” a small chapel/study hall. Someone suggested to Dad that they rent out the Bais Medrosh to a Kollel, a sort of Perpetual Learning Society consisting of young married men who sat every weekday and learned Talmud, going home on weekends to spend Shabbos with their families and make babies. During the week, they sat and learned, while their in-laws supported them, or their wives held down a job and cared for the babies.
           
“We’re getting a Kollel in the Bais Medrosh,” Dad told me when I phoned him from NH, where I was then serving as rabbi at Temple Israel of Portsmouth.
           
“What do you think of a Kollel, Dad?” I asked him. Dad was an Industrial Chemist, as I said before; he had gone out to work as a young man during the Depression, when jobs were hard to find, while attending first City College of NY for his BS in Chemistry, the first member of his family to do so, and, later, Brooklyn College for his MS. He told me once about one chemical factory where the acid on the floor of the lab was so deadly and powerful, it ate through the very soles of his shoes; he had to buy new shoes every couple of weeks. On another occasion, he worked for the American Safety Razor Co. I knew this because I had found his old ID badge, photo attached, while exploring his desk, as young boys will. The Depression meant that you would take any job you could find, and I knew he had given most of his meager salary to his parents to help support them and his younger sister.

            “David,” Dad said to me in slow and solemn tones, “A young man who has the strength and ability to work to support his family, but doesn’t, and instead sits on his tuches all day, reading a book while his wife works and takes care of his children—David, I don’t care how learned or religious he is. David, that young man is no mensch. He is a bum.”
           
“If you will walk according to My laws,” says God. Walking means that you’re going somewhere; you’re not just sitting and studying. Walking can mean, walking to work, and doing your job in an upright and ethical manner. God doesn’t want us to just study His Torah; God wants us to live it. Thanks, Dad. Give Mom a kiss, up there in Heaven. We love you.