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Becoming People of the Book: Finding Ourselves in Torah

Becoming People of the Book: Finding Ourselves in Torah

Rosh Hashanah 5773


It was a cold dreary day in New York City. Shoshana and I had moved to Long Island just months earlier, but we schlepped into Manhattan and made our way to Sotheby’s auction house on the Upper East Side. As we waited outside in line, sipping our coffee, we were surrounded by Jews and non-Jews of every variety, men and women, young and old. There was a palpable sense of camaraderie, the feeling one gets before getting on a rollercoaster or entering the premiere of a movie you have been anticipating for months.

After quite some time, it was finally our turn. We took the elevator up to Sotheby’s exhibition floor and there before us was the Valmadonna Trust Collection. The Valmadonna collection is the finest private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world. Its owner, a Jewish diamond merchant was selling it, all of it, over 13,000 manuscripts, incunabula, and books dating from the 10th century to the early 20th century, works from Western Europe to North Africa, India, and China. In a state of overwhelming awe and appreciation, Shoshana and I perused shelf after glorious shelf with hundreds of other people. I stood just inches from the first printed edition of the Babylonian Talmud from 16th century Venice. I marveled at the first book to be printed on the entire continent of Africa, a siddur from 16th C Fez. For a couple of rabbinical students, it literally felt as if we had died and gone to heaven.

Even beyond the books themselves, I was struck by the tenor of the crowd, the sense that we were standing witness to the collective Jewish soul. Together, we were taking in a physical manifestation of the singularly sustaining element of our people: Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. Talmud Torah is what links us to Jews around the world and throughout time. It connects us to our past, prepares us for the future, and allows us to make sense of the present. Learning has been our people’s life-force for 2,500 years. On that day at Sotheby’s, one central truth was engrained in my soul, along with the souls of every other visitor to the exhibit. There is not a religion or nation in the world that value books and learning more than the Jewish people. We are people of the Book

There is nothing particularly Jewish about the concept of learning. After all, acquiring knowledge is a central pursuit for all humanity. But Talmud Torah, Jewish learning is more than the pursuit of knowledge. It is what gives us our Jewish character. At its highest level, Talmud Torah nourishes our soul. It gives us direction in life and when pursued regularly, has the power to change the way in which we perceive and interact with those around us. Jewish learning, in addition to being a cerebral exercise, is ultimately a spiritual practice; a way of aligning our souls to God’s Will by finding the Divine presence within us.

Midrash teaches us that Torah is like a collection of golden vessels. When one studies passages of Torah, they glisten, reflecting the face of the one who studies them. When we engage in Talmud Torah, either through the study of Tanakh, our holy bible, or by grappling with other texts from the vastness of Jewish literature, we do not evaluate mastery or accomplishment by whether we fully understand every word or the logical flow of a passage. Rather, we seek to find ourselves reflected in the text. This year, were you Isaac or Ishmael? Do you see yourself as Sarah or Hagar? Everything we require to discern a sense of our own life journey can be found in our sacred narrative and the centuries of commentary accompanying it. Through the mirror of Torah, we come to better recognize who we are as Jewish men and women. The Kotzker rebbe summed it up beautifully when he once asked rhetorically: “What good is understanding a text, if one does not thereby attain a better understanding of oneself?”

I didn’t see my own reflection in Torah until I was almost 25. During my second year of cantorial school, I spent ten months learning in a small stone room in Jerusalem, just blocks from the old city. That year, the books of our people slowly came to life before me. As I struggled with new words and difficult concepts, I began to enter into what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of flow. I would lose track of time and all sense of where I was. And slowly, Torah began to fundamentally change how I behaved and what I valued in life. Relationships became more important. Kindness and compassion became traits I desperately worked towards cultivating in myself. Yes, I came back from that year a more observant Jew, but more importantly I returned as a better human being. In Torah, I found biblical characters and rabbinic sages worth emulating and values worth assimilating into my own life. After years on this path of talmud Torah I am sure of two things—The first is that I have infinitely more to learn, The second is that I would not be the husband, father, rabbi or human being I am today without Torah.

The lesson I learned during that first year of study is that authentic talmud Torah necessarily means allowing ourselves to be challenged. We must permit the moral instructions of our tradition to adhere themselves to our souls just as we allow the intellectual concepts to mingle in our minds. In doing so, we have the potential to re-create ourselves, our families, and even our world. As Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the founder of the modern yeshiva movement put it, “one who studies Torah without ulterior motives is considered a “companion,” a colleague of God so to speak, because he facilitates the ongoing creation of the world through his study.” We have a share of God’s creative capacity. Through Torah study, we are capable of radically altering our own path to more fully align ourselves with the values and priorities of Judaism. And when we alter our own path, our own priorities, and our own commitments, it inevitably has an impact on those with whom we interact and leaves an impression on our children and grandchildren.

My dear congregants, there is no way of whitewashing what I am about to say: Previous generations of rabbis and synagogue leaders in this country did a tremendous disservice to us all. For too long, many of us received the message that Jewish learning takes place in religious school and then it ends. As children, many of us were dropped off in the parking lot by our parents for shul or religious school, sending the message that Jewish learning is not an adult activity. The result is that many Jewish adults in this country do not have the inclination nor have they set aside the time to make Talmud Torah a part of their lives.

But it is not too late.

A story: Once, long ago, there was a simple shepherd who wished to engage in Talmud Torah. However, the shepherd was sure that at the age of 40 it was too late. How could anyone begin the journey of Torah study at that age?! One day, as he was tending his sheep in the hills of Judea, the shepherd became thirsty and went to the creek to quench his thirst. As he was drawing the water towards his mouth, something caught his eye. He saw drops of water falling on a stone – drip, drop, drip drop, over and over again in the exact same spot.  As the shepherd looked closer he saw a deep hole in the stone where the drops landed. The shepherd was fascinated. “There is such power in a single drop of water,” he thought. The shepherd gazed at the drops of water for a long time, and realized he was wrong. A single letter, a single teaching, a single book at a time, like drops of water falling on the stone—that was the path to growing in Torah. The next day the forty year old shepherd went to the schoolhouse with his son and they began reading from a child’s tablet. The teacher wrote an alef and a bet and the shepherd learned them. Soon, he had learned the entire alphabet from alef to tav. From there he went on studying until he knew the whole Torah. This is how Akiva the shepherd became the great Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud.

Even as the rabbi, I understand how busy we all are in our daily lives and how daunting it might seem to take on even one more thing in one’s life. However, I also know that Torah is our life and without it our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren are less rich. On this day of new beginnings, commit to adding ten minutes into your daily routine, dedicated to nourishing your soul through the sacred books of our tradition. I promise you will thank yourself in the end. I also make this promise to you. I am prepared and would be honored to sit with each and every one of you to help map out a learning plan that speaks to you and your interests. Nothing would make me happier.

But you do not have to learn alone. In fact, our tradition teaches that when two Jews learn Torah together, the shechinah, God’s physical presence on earth resides between them.

Here at Beth David, our adult education committee works hard to create multiple entry-points for our members to engage in the spiritual exercise of life-changing, soul-engaging Talmud Torah. Just take a look at the red flyer in your High Holyday mailing describing all of the upcoming adult education opportunities. The offerings are incredibly diverse. Whether it is a class on contemporary Jewish biomedical ethics, a lecture by a leading expert in the field of Jewish history, a Talmud class, one of the new Melton courses beginning in the fall, or a discussion about connecting more fully with the Jewish holidays, we are learning together virtually every day of the week, multiple times a day.

Beth David is a place where each of us may choose to follow the path of Rabbi Akiva: the path towards grasping who we are as individual Jewish men and women, the path towards serving as God’s companion in re-creating ourselves, our homes, and our world, the path towards finding ourselves in the sacred books of our people.

And if by some infinitesimally small chance this sermon has not convinced you, I’ll conclude with the most powerful memory that remains with me after viewing the Valmadonna collection.

As Shoshana and I were getting ready to leave, a whole class of young children approached a display case right next to us with their teacher. Their teacher extended his frail-looking hand and pointed to one of the books in the display, a late 16th century Venetian chumash with Rashi’s comments in the margin.  We watched the childrens’ eyes grow wide as they realized the book was open to the exact same page they were learning in school. I have no doubt those children will forever remember that day, just as I will.  And I am sure that when they opened their chumash with rashi that afternoon they were energized by the palpable sense of connection manifested in the books of our people on display at that auction house, just as I was.

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks sums it up beautifully, “Jews are the only people to have predicated their very survival on learning. The Mesopotamians built ziggurats, the Egyptians built pyramids, the Athenians the Parthenon and the Romans the colosseum.”  Jews wrote books and built schools and houses of study in which to learn them. Those other civilizations did not survive, but we are still here, ever becoming people of the Book.

Today, as we contemplate the past and make plans for the future, I invite each of you to join me this year in increasing the amount of learning in our lives, to peer more closely into the mirror of Torah and draw more energy from the spiritual fount of our people. I invite you to one or all of our adult education classes and programs. I invite you to speak with me about your learning plan. As it says in our morning prayers:  “Adonai, may the words of Torah, be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all Your people, so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel may come to love You and study Your Torah for its own merit. Praised are You Adonai, who teachers Torah to God’s people Israel. Praised are You Adonai our God who rules the universe, who chose us from among all peoples by give us the Torah. Praised are You Adonai, who gives Torah.”