As I was becoming religious, one of the occasions on the annual roster of Jewish events which encouraged my spiritual direction was TIKUN LEIL SHAVUOT. This Torah all-nighter was popularized by the great mystics of Tzfat. But don’t get the wrong impression. It wasn’t intense Torah study that drew me. It was clearly the free beer. It was a divine shidduch: The shul needed a minyan; I liked underage drinking. So, right after my bar mitzva, I became a regular at these festivities. It strengthened my attachment to the community, but didn’t necessarily deepen my connection to Torah. We can do better on our Shavuot whether we stay up all night or not.
These past couple of years I’ve been teaching Psalms, and learning to see many phenomena through the Psalmist’s lens. The nature of Torah is no exception. Two Psalms, in particular, discuss the qualities of Torah.
The most famous is chapter 19, which is the first extra Psalm added on Shabbat and Chag. In this great poem, King David presents six terms for Divine communication with the Jewish people: Torah, EIDUT (testimonies), PIKUDIM (assignments), MITZVOT, YIR’AH (decrees), MISHPAT (justice). The six items work in pairs. The first of each couplet strengthens our connection to God; the second to humanity. In other words, there is a troika or triangle pulling us heavenward, and another trio give us stability down here. God’s revelation to AM YISRAEL forms an imaginary MAGEN DAVID with one triangle pointing up and the other down. Torah forms our bond to both our physical and spiritual realities.
However, the Psalm which really describes the nature of Torah in a heavy-duty way is Psalm 119. This massive poem is the longest chapter in all of Tanach, 176 verses. Each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet begins eight verses. It’s sometimes called the Great Aleph Bet or the Eight-Fold Psalm. The poem discusses how fortunate (ASHREI) we are to have the Torah, it contains prayers to help us in our quest for Torah literacy, and describes the advantages which the Torah contributes to our existence. I want to focus on the eight-verse section for the letter MEM.
The beginning of this octet of verses declares: MAH AHAVTI TORATECHA (Wow, how I so love Your Torah, verse 97). Then our Psalmist informs us that Torah is the basis for his thoughts, conversations and meditations (SICHATI) all day long. This constant contact with Torah and its ideas gives our Singer a great advantage in life. He is always able to deal wisely with others. This allows our poet to succeed in competition with others.
However, the true greatness of Torah is that like a great stream moving towards the ocean, it is always increasing. I can surpass my great mentors, because I can use their Torah and apply it to new circumstances. The body of Torah material is always accreting because human knowledge and experience is increasing. The Torah is almost alive (a bit like AI) it grows, adapts, evolves. The greatest Torah scholars are always concerned with the cutting edge of human technology, because Torah requires an answer to every human question.
The next section of our stanza (verses 101-102) describe how Torah protects me from evil (RA). Since our Torah is a guide, it keeps both my physical being and spirit from negative pathways. Torah instructs, through justice (MISHPAT), to not deviate from goodness by observing Your DAVAR. Now this term can mean ‘word’ or ‘thing’, but here I believe it bests describes God’s agenda.
Many sections of this massive poem describe the infinite value of Torah with the expected metaphors of wealth, gold and silver. Here in the letter MEM we, instead, describe Torah’s sweetness. It surpasses honey. The very words of Torah provide a sweetness in my mouth to accompany the euphoria its ideas provide for my brain and soul.
The final verse makes, I believe, a critically important point for all people throughout history, but, sadly, is extremely crucial in our world. ‘From your assignments (PIKUDECHA) I gain insight (ETBONAN), as a result I have come to hate every facet of falsehood (SHEKER, verse 104).’ What could be more valuable in our modern age? We are bombarded by media with every form of scheme prevacation, deception, misrepresentation. Torah can’t stand a lie. But beyond that, Torah helps us root out SHEKER.
Since the Torah demands that we never place a stumbling block before the blind (Vayikra 19:14). Rabbis should never discuss or give advice in issues that they are not experts. In other words, the Torah demands that a rabbi without a medical degree should send you to a doctor if you want to know whether or not to fast on Yom Kippur. The same is true in business, psychology or car repair. I remember Rabbi Soloveitchik, Reb Moshe Feinstein and the Lubavitcher Rebbe consulting experts in many fields to help others get the proper response to an inquiry. I taught the son of a cardiologist with whom the Rebbe consulted. Find the correct answers wherever they may reside.
That’s what the Torah demands: authenticity! The opposite of SHEKER. This Shavuot we all must renew our commitment to Torah, which is Torat Emet. So, learn hard, and always seek truth wherever it resides. Chag Sameach!!