This past Sunday, one of the topics I taught to my 7th grade Hebrew school class was the mitzvah of learning Torah (called Talmud Torah).
Although part of the lesson included a high-quality video that included famous musical artists, movie writers, and TV show producers discussing their engagement in learning Torah (see “BLUEPRINT — The Secret to Jewish Success;” full version 14:49), I felt that my lesson did not plant any seeds in my students.
Therefore, I have reflected as to why I learn Torah every day — why learning Torah is meaningful to me, which I will share with my students next week, and I share with the reader in this piece.
For clarification, by the word “Torah,” I do not just mean the Torah, as in the Five Books of Moses, but to all Jewish religious texts such the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic and halakhic texts, and kabbalistic and hasidic texts.
(1) I learn Torah every day because it gives me a cohesive set of answers to all of the ultimate questions.
What really is God? Why did God create the world? What is the purpose of the Jewish people? Why do bad things happen to good people? What really is prayer? How can one get the most out of life? What are the keys to a successful marriage? What is the secret to happiness? Etc.
Science can not answer these questions, and psychological theories and philosophical speculation have failed to provide consistent and unwavering answers. The Torah offers eternal answers to such questions.
(2) I learn Torah every day because it reminds me who I really am.
Most of my focus throughout a typical day is on the nitty-gritty that goes with being a teacher, of being a father, of being a spouse, etc. However, Torah reminds me that I am not my profession, nor am I any of the titles I have, nor the roles that I play, nor do my possessions (or lack of) define me. Rather, at my core, I am a soul and that is what matters most. This holds true for every Jew as well. Therefore, I should not base my views of fellow Jews on which type of synagogue they attend, nor on what they look like, nor on who they are going to vote for in the next presidential election, but that they are each a soul.
(3) I learn Torah every day because it connects me with the millions of other Jews worldwide who also learn Torah everyday.
There are several different daily learning programs. One is Daf Yomi in which the same double-sided page of Talmud is studied everyday, and the entire Talmud is completed every 7.5 years. Another program of daily study, the one in which I participate, consists of learning a section of the Torah with Rashi’s commentary (which is in sync with the weekly Torah reading in synagogue), a section of the Rambam’s 14-volume legal-code Mishneh Torah, and a section of the Tanya, which is one of the most important texts of Jewish thought.
The latter daily learning schedule enables one to complete the entire Torah and Tanya every year, and complete the Mishneh Torah in just under three years for those who devote about an hour per day to learning, though many people complete all three of these texts every year. By learning these three texts in particular, one engages in learning, albeit at the surface level, the totality of Jewish law and thought.
In learning Torah every day I know that, every day, there are fellow Jews in Los Angeles, Brazil, Israel, Australia, etc. who are learning the exact words that I am reading, perhaps even at that very moment. Although thousands of miles may physically separate us, learning the same sections of Torah everyday connects us.
(4) I learn Torah every day because I want to hear and grow from God’s personalized daily message for me.
Every day I find something in one of the texts that I study that if I concretize it, it will make me a better parent, or a better spouse, or better employee, etc. Often this applied through me demonstrating more patience, calmness, and proper speech — which also makes me a better human being and a better Jew.
(5) I learn Torah every day because it sharpens my mind.
Trying to figure out why Rashi commented on a particular verse, following a very nuanced explanation of a complex theological concept over many days, and trying to remember and keep all the context variables straight in the application of a particular Jewish law all stretch and develop my mind in multiple ways. By exercising my mind in these ways, I am constantly developing a Jewish way of thinking.
Those who participate in the daily study of the Talmud will be quick to agree with the maxim that the Talmud is “brain food,“ and if one were to ask any lawyer who has spent time learning in a yeshiva, every one of them will attest that the mental exertion needed for law school is like kindergarten compared to learning Talmud. No wonder why we as a people are so smart!
(6) I learn Torah every day because it is one of the most important mitzvot of Judaism.
The mitzvah of learning Torah is said to be equal to all of the mitzvot. (The same is said about tzedakah.) Therefore, when engaging in learning Torah, I am getting credit equal to if I were doing all of the mitzvot. Davening (praying), keeping Kosher, and keeping Shabbat are all important, but the learning of Torah every morning and evening is singled out to be the most important mitzvah and the rasion d’etre of a Jew’s daily life. One reason for this our sages say is that learning Torah leads to doing the mitzvot (which I find a little circular), but other reasons for highlighting the importance of learning Torah probably include many of these reasons I am discussing.
(7) I learn Torah every day because I am addicted to learning Torah.
The more I learn, the more I realize how much I do not know, and I realize how much more there is to learn. Thankfully, there is no Torah Anonymous to cure me of this! I know that, over the years, I have spent a lot of time learning Torah and I know a lot, but I am humbled every time I read a good Torah essay or hear a good Torah lecture. This causes me to want to learn even more. I want Torah (i.e., God’s wisdom) to be so a part of me that I am able to make connections between what is in different texts and to be able to come up with Torah insights, so this drives me to learn even more.
(8) I learn Torah every day because I enjoy connecting to God’s mind.
The goal of learning Torah is not just to acquire divine wisdom, but to connect with God. Although every mitzvah connects one with God, it is specifically through learning Torah that one’s mind (via his/her soul) and God’s “mind” intertwine and become one. It is the deepest bond we can have with God. Being at one with God’s wisdom while learning Torah is the deepest of deep meditations. (See Tanya, chapters 4 and 5, for more detail.)
Hopefully, next Sunday at least one of the above will reasons while I learn Torah everyday will resonate with each of my Hebrew school students.
In order to reduce the amount of time I need to stay up every night to get my daily Torah learning completed, I learn Torah every time I have a few free moments throughout the day. This includes learning Torah during halftime of the NFL football game I watch on TV, during the commercials of the one TV show that I watch every week, during my lunch period at work, while waiting in the carpool line, and during half-time of my own kid’s basketball and lacrosse games. As a result, I learn Torah in 5-10 minute stanzas throughout the entire day which literally fulfills the directives in the Shema: “…you should speak of them [words of Torah] when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise…”.
As one can see from this essay, learning Torah is more than just reading Hebrew school level “Bible Stories.” Learning Torah can infuse meaning and perspective into one’s life.
Anyone at any time anyone can start learning Torah. A great place to begin is the website Aish.com, which has easy-to-read essays on a wide range of Jewish topics such as: Judaism 101, Spirituality, Israel, Family, and Current Events; and there are thousands of videos of short talks on the website Jewish.tv.
The ancient rabbinic text of advice, Pirkei Avot, challenges us: “…do not say: ‘When I will have free time I will study,’ for perhaps you will never have free time” (2:4). So what are you waiting for? Go learn some Torah! But be warned: it’ll change your life.