Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Shavuot open letter: get your nose out of your book

Dear Mr. Religious,

Please get your nose out of your book. I’m sure you’re a very nice person but please get your nose out of your book. We’re at a children’s concert and you’re missing it!

I know you think it’s a mitzvah to study every spare moment you have but this is not such a moment. This is not a spare moment; this is a concert. This is a children’s concert. You’re missing the music. You’re missing the children. You’re missing what it means to be alive. You think you’re studying Torah but the truth is that you’re MISSING Torah.

Kohelet, the wise teacher also known as Ecclesiastes, says:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

There is also a time to study and a time to apply what you have studied. There is also a time to read and a time to listen. What the wise teacher of Kohelet is saying is that life is given to you. Life’s moments are given to you: moments of joy and moments of sadness. If you blink, you’ll miss the moment. Don’t blink. When you put your nose in your sacred book at a time like this, you aren’t just blinking, you’re closing your eyes!

Is it holy to miss out on life? All your studies – ALL of them – are about how to be a better Jew in THIS world. When you avert your eyes from the world, you shut yourself off from the world. When you shut yourself off from the world, you can’t fully act on the lessons of the Torah.

This concert is not vanity of vanities. It is not “hevel”. It is indeed filled with great Torah. It is filled with “Kol Sasson VeKol Simcha” – the voice of joy and the voice of gladness. That is what I hear when I hear these glorious voices singing this glorious music.

Look at these beautiful children performing this beautiful music. This is the result of parenting – another mitzvah. It is the result of education – another mitzvah. It is the result of community building.

Listening to this concert is, in fact, sacred work! Listening to it enriches the children on the stage and it enriches us – you and me.

If Everyone Were as Religious as You

If the entire hall were filled with audience members as “religious” as you, the children on the stage would be looking into unreceptive faces – into an audience that was ignoring them. That’s right – a hall full of people with their noses in their sacred books, ignoring the proud children.

In the Shma, God tells us to teach the mitzvot to our children – to teach our children how to keep God in our lives and to act according to God’s will. So if we all acted as you do, what, besides disappointing the children, what lesson would we be imparting to them? What would the children learn? Is this really holiness?

A stage of children pouring out their hearts and souls in song to an unreceptive audience of “pious” individuals with their noses in their books is not the way to go. Don’t forget that the Shma begins with love (“Ve’ahavta”). We show love to God by showing love to our fellow men and women – and to our children. This is one of the ways we teach our children about God and holiness. This is certainly how it begins.

Shavuot and the Lessons of the Torah

This Sunday is the first day of Shavuot. We will read the Aseret Hadibrot (the Ten Commandments or the Ten Utterances) and remember the receiving of Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai. We will not only remember it, but we will accept the Torah today – in our lives and in our hearts. We will spend the first night, Erev Shavuot, studying the lessons of the gift given to us at Sinai.

Please get your nose out of your book because, when studying Torah is done at the expense of shutting yourself off from the world, you’re missing the point of Torah.

Please get your nose out of your book and, like Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), appreciate the moments. And after all, the moments are all we have. And each of these moments is a portion given to us from above.

Please get your nose out of your book because there is a time for studying Torah and there is a time for putting Torah into your life.

Please get your nose out of your book and be open to the world around you – for Torah is everywhere around you. Don’t miss it.

Please get your nose out of your book, lift your head, open your eyes and ears, and watch these beautiful children perform in this concert. God and God’s Torah are in the faces of these children and in the notes that they sing.

So please, as we remember the giving of Torah on Sinai, please, for the sake of the Torah, get your nose out of your book.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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