The Jewish people did something very strange Tuesday night. All over the world, Jews gathered together in synagogues and in private homes in order to study. Some studied for a few hours. Some studied all through the night. This is one way that Jews observe Shavuot. It is the holiday of receiving the Torah, and so we honor the Torah by studying it on this night.
But what exactly did we study that night? There is no set text. Some people study a chapter from each book of the Bible. Some people study according to a Kabbalistic order. Some study the book of Ruth. At Beth El, our topics (skillfully organized by Rabbi Harris) ranged from the very Book of Ruth to Amichai poetry to church-state constitutional law to who buried Moses (see the pronoun in Deuteronomy 34:6 for why this is a question.) We made it to 1AM. It is safe to say that we learned little that night that we can make use of in our business affairs, or that we can apply directly to our daily lives.
And if you should ask me why we devoted so many hours to the study of things that have no practical value, the best answer to this question that I know is the one that is given by Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his great book: The Earth Is The Lord’s. The book is kind of an ode to the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is a tribute to the way in which they lived on the Sabbath and during the week. It tells the story of how ordinary wagon drivers would take a break from their work in order to slip into a Bet Midrash and catch a bit of Torah, not so that they could be better and more skillful wagon drivers, or so that they could earn a graduate degree, but so that they could be better human beings. It tells the story of how people could be menial laborers six days a week, and feel like royalty when they sat down at their table on Shabbat.
And then Heschel comes to the question of what they studied, and why. He asks: How come they often studied laws that were no longer binding, laws that no longer applied since the destruction of the Temple, or that only applied in the Land of Israel? How come they put their entire heart and soul into the study of pages that often had no practical application?
Dr. Heschel says that, for them, “ideas were like precious stones. The gracefulness, the variety, of the polished ideas they dealt with enlightened the intellect and dazzled the eye. This was not realistic thinking, but great art likewise is not a reproduction of nature.” And then Dr. Heschel responds to those who make fun of impractical learning like this. He says, “It is easy to belittle such an attitude of mind, and to call it impractical or unworldly. But what is nobler than the impractical spirit? The soul is sustained by the regard for that which transcends immediate purposes. The sense of the transcendent is the heart of culture, the essence of humanity. A civilization that is devoted exclusively to the utilitarian is at bottom not different from barbarism. The world is sustained by unworldliness!”
Isn’t that a powerful statement: “the world is sustained by unworldliness?” That statement is the key to the traditional concept of Jewish learning. No one studied Torah in order to get a degree or earn a living (except maybe people like me.) No one studied Torah in order to get a grade or pass a test or get a promotion. A Jew studied Torah because it was our life, and the meaning and the measure of our days. A Jew studied Torah because it taught us how to be human. And that is what Shavuot night study is about = Torah for its own sake.
David Brooks in the Times spoke of this from a secular point of view. “I am old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to a life of ideas – the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people today believe in, or aspire to, this kind of a life. I am not sure how many schools still prepare students for this kind of life, but I sure hope that there are still some. If not, we will raise a generation that will be technologically trained, and materially rich, but that will be spiritually empty.”
Let me finish with a great story from Heschel’s book. It is a story that speaks to my soul, one that I think our children – who study so much only for the sake of getting a good grade on their S.A.T’s, who work so hard in order to get into the right school – it is a story that our children need to hear and that they (and we) need to think about. This is the story:
“Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol once started to study a volume of the Talmud. A day later, his disciples noticed that he was still on the first page. They assumed that he must have encountered a difficult problem, and that he was trying to solve it. But when a number of days passed, and he was still immersed in the first page, they were astonished, but they did not dare to question the master. Finally, one of them gathered up his courage, and asked him why he did not proceed to the next page. Rabbi Zusya answered: ‘I feel so good here; why should I go elsewhere?’”
Join up next year for an evening of Torah study on the night of Shavuot. I guarantee you will be glad you stopped being so practical for at least a few hours. But you don’t have to wait a year for that. Best, Bill Rudolph