Piny Hackenbroch
Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

Transformation through dedication

For the people of the Book, it goes without saying that the study of our heritage and the Torah in particular has always taken center stage in the lives of the Jewish people. The core souls of every single Jew stood at the foot of Sinai and accepted unequivocally the entire gamut of the Torah. It was from that momentous occasion in our collective history that the study of Torah continued unabated with the unbroken chain of transmission of our tradition from teacher to student. Interestingly the study of the Torah was originally required to be in a standing posture. The Talmud (Megilla 21a) relates that from the days of Moshe through those of Rabban Gamliel the Torah was only studied while standing. After Rabban Gamliel’s death, “sickness” descended to the world and people were too weak to stand the whole day and therefore began to need to study while seated.

What is puzzling is that at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, parashat Bechukotai, we find the mitzvah of learning Torah alluded to.

If you walk in my statutes (Vayikra 26:3)

From these few words Rashi (quoting the Toras Kohanim) deduces a responsibility for us to immerse ourselves in the words of the Torah.

Two questions emerge from the explanation. Firstly, whenever one studies or immerses oneself intensely in anything of significance be it academia, or work, it is done so stationary, moving around and walking seems hardly conducive to imbibing anything let alone the words of the Torah. why would the instructions for our toil in the Torah be framed in terms of walking?

Secondly, we find the obligation of studying the Torah written in a rather round about fashion, being expressed in terms of walking in G-d’s statutes, why would the Torah choose not to write it explicitly?

There is a well know story in the Talmud regarding Reb Akiva.

Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”

Said (Rabbi Akiva) to him: “I’ll give you a parable.

“A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’

“Said they to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’

“Said he to them: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’

“Said they to him: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You are not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’

“The same applies to us. If now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said .”For it is your life and the lengthening of your days,’ such is our situation, how much more so if we neglect it . . .” (Devarim 30:20)

For Jews, the Torah is something we do not merely study, but we immerse ourselves it is expected to permeate every fibre of our being. The study of the Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish people it is the means through which G-d talks to us and we can have an appreciation how we should behave or conduct ourselves in any given situation.

The story is told of Bertrand Russell that while he was a Professor of Ethics at Harvard, he was carrying on an adulterous affair. Since it was decades before the sexual revolution, Harvard’s Board of Governors called Russell in and censured him. Russell maintained that his private affairs had nothing to do with the performance of his professional duties.

“But you are a Professor of Ethics!” one of the Board members remonstrated.

“I was a Professor of Geometry at Cambridge,” Russell re-joined, “but the Board of Governors never asked me why I was not a triangle.”

The study of the Torah is to be contrasted with that of any other secular discipline. In the case of the former it is transformative. The total immersion in its study refines the individual’s character and the transformation in character will be self-evident in every sphere of the person’s life. From relationships, to honesty and integrity in the workplace, to acting with kindness and generosity of spirit and contributing to the community and society.

With this understanding we are now in a position to return to the original questions that we posed.  It may well be that the toiling in Torah is framed in terms of walking in G-d’s statutes rather than focussing on the study of Torah itself. It is the total immersion in the study of Torah which manifests itself in a person’s personal conduct in their daily lives. We therefore put learning of Torah in the context of walking within its laws illustrating that demonstrating its teaching as we walk through our lives, living a personal example of the   principles exhibited by those that study it which will illustrate in all its majesty the timeless and dynamic principles the Torah holds for us all, in the past, the present, and for all time.

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker.
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