The Study Of Torah Is Equal to Them All – Talmud Torah K’neged Kulam
Rosh Hashanah Morning
September 30, 2019 5780
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Shana Tova. Happy New Year. Its great to see all of you.
This morning Or Chadash is doing a few things that likely are not taking place at other synagogues.
We pride ourselves in our uniqueness.
And today and again on Yom Kippur, I will be speaking on subjects that likely are not being spoken of across North America and even around the world. In many synagogues, rabbis will be speaking on the new threats of anti-Semitism. They will be preaching on the recent elections in Israel and the fate of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. Rabbis will be speaking about the latest developments with our President, and they will call upon Congress to enact legislation regarding immigration and guns, opioids and vaping, healthcare and the environment and on many, many, other pressing issues facing our nation.
And each of those sermons will remind its listeners that Jewish values are not for philosophical discussions or personal living alone.
Rather, Jewish values teach that they carry social aspects, as well. They are incumbent upon the community to act on them, and must be carried into every realm of living. Social Justice is a collective concern.
And I applaud those messages. Tikkun Olam, repairing our world in the myriad ways it needs healing, especially in these uncharted days of dis-ease,… Tikkun Olam is a religious obligation worthy of being reminded of on these holy days. Here at Or Chadash I want to remind you what our rabbinic sages said 2000 years ago. Rabbi Tarfon used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. And there is much work to be done. And the work of Tikkun Olam, repairing our world, will go on long after the final shofar blast of Yom Kippur has faded.
This morning I welcome you to a High Holy Day celebration that — for a few sacred hours in our sanctuary — turns away from the din of politics and public policy.
I invite you instead to join me in a look inward, a time to reflect and consider how we might repair and heal not our nation nor Israel, but how we might renew and strengthen ourselves for the year ahead.
Last night I introduced Rabbi Hillel from the Talmud to those who were with us. As a reminder to them, and as an introduction to those who were not with us last night, a brief bio of Hillel.
Hillel the Elder, was born in the 1st Century before the Common Era, in Babylon, and became one of the most important Jewish sages.
Hillel is known as the author of many other popular sayings from the Talmud: (1) “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” and (2) the “Golden Rule”: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.
Last night I shared Hillel’s aphorism on being a decent human being – a mentch:
B’makom she’ayn anashim, hishtadel lihi’ot ish.
In a place where there are no menschen, no decent people, you should try to be a mentch.
But there is yet another saying from Hillel that I want to speak to you about today.
In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, Hillel advises:
Lo Tomar li’k’sheh-eefaneh eshneh; she-ma lo teefaneh.
Do not say: “When I will have leisure, I shall study;” perhaps you will never have leisure.
And Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, who often argued with him, agreed. He advised: Set a fixed time for learning.
Hillel and Shammai’s cautionary words from 2000 years ago on the importance of setting aside a time to learn are apparently still much needed because, as it turns out, for the majority of us, leisure is an elusive liberty.
One year ago today, on September 30, 2018, a New York Times OpEd by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu was published. Entitled: In Praise of Mediocrity, it was a short essay on the importance of leisure and its disappearance.
“I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival.
Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.
Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?”….
“Lest this sound suspiciously like an elaborate plea for people to take more time off from work — well, yes. Though I’d like to put the suggestion more grandly: The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. “
Professor Wu rightly encourages us to make time for important activities. Judaism concurs. These High Holy Days are a time for contemplating higher pursuits, a time when, as a community, we collectively express our highest ideals. This is also a time for us to reflect on our lives and the year that has passed and the year that has yet to be.
Between today and Yom Kippur we are asked to make what our tradition calls a Cheshbon HaNefesh – literally an accounting of our souls — to seek forgiveness for the wrongs we have done. But no less important to these days of awe, is their power to remind us that setting aside time to grow is an essential part of being Jewish and an essential part of being a fully realized human being.
Part of our Teshuvah, our turning toward the good, should be centered on our own growth.
The Talmud enumerates thousands of laws. One passage in particular from the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a lists ten that have no limit to their fulfillment. They are each so important that we include them in our prayers — they are even in our High Holy Day Machzor. (Page 90)
These are the obligations without measure; their fruit we eat now, their essence remains for us in the life to come:
To honor one’s father and mother
To perform acts of love and kindness
To attend the house of study daily
To welcome the stranger
To visit the sick
To rejoice with bride and groom
To console the bereaved
To pray with sincerity
To make peace when there is strife.
But the study of Torah is equal to all of them.
Talmud torah k’neged culam.
The study of Torah is equal to them all. (Mishneh Peah 1:1, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a)
And, traditionally, it was text study (Talmud Torah) that was central to Jewish religious life.
But through the centuries, rabbis recognized that the survival of Judaism depended upon study and learning not just of Torah texts, but of ever manner of Jewish living — music, dance, theater, film, art, literature, cuisine — every manner of living is part of the rich tapestry of Jewish life and therefore of Jewish learning.
There is no doubt that honoring parents, performing acts of kindness, celebrating joys and providing comfort in times of sorrow…all of these are important religious obligations.
But, learning, growing as a person is no less essential. It is our greatest obligation.
Yes, rabbi, we know — you say — that’s why our children attend Religious School.
That’s wonderful. But let me share a brief story.
A man once asked Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, the great 18th and 19th century Hassid from Poland to pray for him, in order that his children might study the Torah diligently. The Rabbi replied:
“If your children see that you are a diligent student, they will imitate you. But if you neglect your own studies, and instead merely wish your children to study, the result will be that they will do likewise when they grow up. They will neglect the Torah themselves and desire that their children do the studying.”
Sadly, that has become a reality for far too many Jewish adults. Our school days over, our fixed times for study passed, we wait until we find leisure to enrich our Jewish selves. And even sadder still, is that it is not study alone that is put aside until so many of us find time.
How many of us are waiting for a magic moment to be given us in order to complete a task, reach a goal, master a skill, explore an adventure, deepen a relationship, express appreciation, improve the lives of our loved ones or the life of a stranger or, perhaps most important, our own lives? Leisure does not appear. No. Leisure is made. We schedule it. We make it happen the same way we make each appointment that is important to us happen.
Professor Wu reminds us that …”Liberty and equality are supposed to make possible the pursuit of happiness. It would be unfortunate if we were to protect the means only to neglect the end. A democracy, when it is working correctly, allows men and women to develop into free people; but it falls to us as individuals to use that opportunity to find purpose, joy and contentment.”
This morning I invite you to fix a time for leisure and to set a time for learning — to increase your opportunities to find purpose, joy and contenment. But I’m here to help. Allow me to explain.
There are two different kinds of learning that our tradition encourages. The first is learning in order to gain a skill set or master a profession or language or know how to do something we need to get done. But the other kind of learning is quite different.
Judaism has a special phrase to describe learning that, ironically, has no purpose other than the enrichment of our very being. If you’ve ever opened an encyclopedia and began reading a random article on a topic you’ve never heard of, or, if while reading online, found yourself clicking endlessly on one new topic after another, or sat and listened to a podcast, soaking in facts and stories that have little to no bearing on your life, then you will know what Torah L’shma is. Learning for the sake of learning.
You know, you might think that rabbis set aside time each day or each week to study and learn something new. But the reality is that our lives are busy, too. We need help from one another to set aside time for learning. Each fall when the High Holy Days end, and Simchat Torah is past, the Reform rabbis of New Jersey gather for a few days to enrich ourselves with Torah L’shma — learning for the sake of learning.
We have studied various translations of well-known Psalms, looking at the nuance of language. We have explored the changing image of the modern Israeli in contemporary film. We have poured over esoteric texts to see what topics the Medieval Jews of Italy thought about. What do we do with that knowledge? We enrich ourselves. We become a bit wiser. We have fun. But making it happen, as Hillel knew, is not easy. It takes more than dedication — it takes a community to support that commitment. Like getting a friend to go to the gym with you.
Let me tell you about Sarah Hurwitz who began her journey back to discovering the sweetness of Torah L’shma, learning for its own sake — and surprising herself by re-discovering the richness of Judaism. From a teenaged Post Bat Mitzvah religious school drop who gave up the pediatric Judaism she learned as a child, to a rebellious college student fascinated by the religious traditions of other faiths, to the guilty or perhaps curious young adult traveller making occasional visits to Jewish historical sites in Europe, Sarah Hurwitz eventually worked her way to rediscovering a meaningful engagement with Jewish life. She focused her career on becoming a speech writer in the White House where she wrote for the President and then the First Lady for more than six years. She was busy. Very busy. But one day, at the age of 36, she decided to carve out some leisure time, and she signed up for a class on Judaism at a local Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C.
In the introduction to her new book, Here All Along, Hurwitz writes:
“… what I discovered in that class utterly floored me.
I had always thought of myself as a good person, but the Jewish ethics we studied set a much higher bar for honesty, generosity, and basic human decency than I had ever thought to set for myself. Once I actually understood the purposes of the holidays and lifecycle rituals, they struck me as beautiful and profound, honoring the lessons of the past, sanctifying moments in the present, and conveying deep moral wisdom….
…It’s hard to overstate how surprised I was by these discoveries. None of this was evident to me during the two [High Holy Day] services I grudgingly sat through each year.
And with those occasions as my main points of contact with Judaism, it had never occurred to me to look to it for answers to my big life questions or as a source of meaning and spirituality. I had thought I didn’t need religion and that serious engagement with Judaism might be valuable for others, but not for me. It turned out that I was wrong.”
The full title of Sarah Hurwitz’s book is Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life–in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There). And that is what I am encouraging you to do. To choose to look there. You too, might be floored by what you discover.
And do not say: “When I will have leisure, I shall learn;” because perhaps you will never have leisure.
Look…, Columbia Law Professors know that making leisure time is a challenge. Rabbis — who are encouraging Jewish living — know that carving out that time is a challenge. I know it’s a challenge. So I am offering you this:
I am inviting you to join me on our shared journey of leisure learning.
This year, read a Jewish book; or take a class on a Jewish topic, maybe bake challah with us on Challah-ween next month;
watch an Israeli film or Netflix series; visit NYC and stop in a Jewish museum or exhibit or see a show or play on a Jewish theme – Fiddler on the Roof is on Broadway! There are so many possible ways for you to fix a time for Jewish learning.
Our congregation will be reading Sarah Hurwitz’s book this year. We will have programs dedicated to some of the ideas it explores. We will be taking trips to Jewish theater in NY and Israeli restaurants in Philly and engaging in the flavors and sights and sounds of our tradition. We will be sending you podcasts to listen to and suggested books to read. There are myriad new ways that Talmud Torah — the study of Jewish living can bring joy.
And why should you join in all of this? How can you possibly fit more into your schedule?
Do not say: “When I will have leisure, I shall learn;” perhaps you will never have leisure. Set a time.
I look forward to a year of Jewish learning with all of you.