Taking Full Advantage: A Shavuot Cheshbon HaNefesh
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
The central pillar
Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, is the time when both Hashem and the Jewish people reflect upon our relationship with the Torah He gave us.
Though Shimon HaTzaddik identifies Torah study as one of three pillars that support the world (Avot 1:2), the pillar of Torah is the most important. “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam,” “the significance of Torah learning is equal to that of all other mitzvot” (Peah 1:1).
This explains why the world’s existence hinges upon Torah learning. The Torah describes the sixth day of creation as “yom hashishi” as opposed to “yom shishi,” unlike its description of the previous days of creation. Chazal explain that Hashem conditioned Creation on the events of a future “sixth day” – the sixth of Sivan – when the Torah was given. Had we not committed ourselves to Torah, the world would have been returned to nothingness (Avodah Zarah 3a).
Rav Chaim Volozhin understood that just as creation hinged on our original acceptance of the Torah, so the world’s continued existence depends upon Torah learning. If there would be even one moment completely bereft of Torah learning, the world would cease to exist (Nefesh HaChayim, Sha’ar 1:16). Along these lines, Rabbi Meir emphasizes that one person learning Torah makes the entire world’s existence worthwhile (Avot 6:1).
Pirkei Avot begins with Shimon HaTzaddik’s assertion that the world exists for the purpose of Torah learning. It ends with Rabbi Meir taking this notion a significant step further by portraying even a single person’s Torah learning as justifying the existence of the entire world!
The greatest and highest life
“If you have learned much Torah, do not take special credit; it is why you were created” (Avot 2:8). The world was conceived as a context for Torah learning, and the Jewish people were created to be the vehicle. This explains why Hillel taught that one who does not study Torah deserves to die, for Torah study is the central reason for our existence (Avot 1:13). If we do not fulfill our role, the gift of life will, G-d forbid, be taken from us.
When some questioned his commitment to teaching Torah in violation of a Roman prohibition, Rabbi Akiva compared a Jew’s need for Torah learning to a fish’s dependence on water (Berachot 61b). Torah is not just an enhancer of life; it is a condition for it. Though we can physically live and breathe without Torah, our spiritual life hinges upon its nourishment.
Why is Torah study so important? It is the only pursuit we can devote all of our free time to. While chessed is performed in response to a situational need and tefillah is recited at set intervals, Torah can be learned at any free moment. At any moment, we can draw close to Hashem by immersing ourselves in His thoughts.
Rabbi Meir asserts that Torah learning makes one “greater” and “higher” than all other creations. In Rav Yosef’s view, Torah learning is “great” because it makes those who learn it “greater,” elevating us to the highest version of ourselves (Avot 6:2). Rav Yosef explained his custom to celebrate Shavuot with a “triple-meat” sandwich by asserting that without Torah learning, he would have amounted to no more than “the average Joe / Yosef” (Pesachim 68b).
There are many ways people seek to distinguish themselves. There are the Joe DiMaggios and Joe Namaths of sports and the Joe Bidens and Joe Liebermans of politics. Though some of their accomplishments are impressive and impactful, only (ilmaleh) Torah learning truly develops us in a meaningful way.
This appreciation lies at the heart of Chag Shavuot. To celebrate Shavuot properly, we need to reflect upon how central Torah learning and values are to our identity. Celebration without this reflection is superficial and merely physical.
“Every day, a heavenly voice cries out from Sinai saying: ‘Woe to the creatures who insult the Torah’ by not taking advantage of the opportunity to study it” (Avot 6:2).
This lament is especially relevant to our times. The Industrial Revolution and subsequent technological advances shortened the amount of time needed to complete our workload, while electricity lighting up our nights has expanded our ability to be productive at night. Together, these advancements afford us an unprecedented amount of free time. But how do we use this time? Unfortunately, much of the world devotes it to leisure and entertainment, using their free time for activities that do not enrich them or impact their surroundings in any meaningful way.
“Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachinai would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life.” (Avot 3:4). The problem is not being up at night in and of itself, but, rather staying up at night without learning Torah. Night time was created for Torah study and sleep (Eruvin 65a); one who wastes it does not deserve the life he has been gifted.
We live in an age of constant distraction. It is, in fact, no further than the palms of our hands. Though people have always been drawn to meaningless pursuits, easy access to smartphones, social media and entertainment has increased the temptation dramatically.
Shavuot is the time to consider the contrast between the great value of Torah study versus the amount of time we commit to it. We should reflect upon the activities in which we invest our time and consider the growth we would achieve if we devoted that same time to Torah study.
Translating our good intentions
Many of us have tried to devote more time to Torah study, but have struggled to actualize our good intentions. After Shavuot, when we return to the busyness of everyday life, our hopes of intensifying our Torah study often fall by the wayside.
Chazal addressed this problem with a practical recipe for success. It begins with being “kovei’ah itim l’Torah.” Devoting a set time each day and night to Torah learning reinforces our appreciation of its importance and gives us a better chance of continuing consistently.
Ideally, we should set aside the first and last hours of each day for Torah study. Learning first thing in the morning shows that Torah is our priority and ensures we learn before the days get busy. Learning at the end of our day frames the day with holiness and infuses our sleep with thoughts of Torah.
Studying with a chavruta in a beit midrash and joining a set daily learning program (like daf yomi) will also help us maintain a commitment to learning. Chavruta study makes us responsible to someone else, while learning in a beit midrash among a cadre of learners adds atmosphere to our learning. Finally, joining a daily learning program links us to a global community devoted to a common Torah goal.
Many of us spend hours commuting each day. What do we do while driving or on the train, bus or plane? Travel time is an excellent opportunity to listen to a shiur or read a sefer. By doing so, we increase our Torah learning and reinforce our appreciation of Torah.
Every Jew should aspire to become a Torah scholar. Our appreciation of the Torah’s value should also inspire us to seek to grow our Torah knowledge. It is never too late to acquire Torah knowledge. Rabbi Akiva began his meteoric growth at age forty. Most of us are already ahead of him and just need to maintain our focus and effort.
What our life amounts to
Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l told the story of a rabbi who visited a town for the first time. The locals gave their honored guest a tour, taking him to see the shul, the school, the mikveh and finally the cemetery. The rabbi was shocked to see that all the gravestones memorialized children who had died young: Reuven, 12 years old. Shimon, 11 years old. Levi, 15 years old, and so on. “Was there a plague here?” he asked. “A pogrom? Why did they die so young?”
“No, rabbi,” the mayor explained. “In this town, we keep track of the time we spend each day learning Torah and doing mitzvot. At the end of the day, we count up those hours and write them down on a little pad. At the end of each week, month and year, each person tallies his total hours of Torah study. When someone dies, we add up the total amount of time they spent learning Torah and doing mitzvot. For this person, it was ten years, for that person twelve. The ages on the gravestone are their Torah ages, not their biological ones.”
Shavuot is a time to reflect upon how to make our days, months, and years count. The Tschebiner Rebbe used to challenge his chassidim to consider what would happen if someone already deceased was given the opportunity to return to this world for a few days. How would he spend his limited time? The newly revived man would surely rush to the beit midrash to learn as much Torah as possible and certainly wouldn’t waste his time on idle chatter and meaningless activities. We, too, should appreciate the limited time we have in this world and use it well.
Our communities do so much good. We send our children to fine schools, daven in beautiful shuls, and are deeply committed to chessed. Our commitment to Torah learning, on the other hand, definitely needs strengthening. Let us use Chag Matan Torateinu as a time to reflect on the importance of Torah learning and the ways we can deepen our commitment to it. Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.