Today, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, is a very special day – the day of Generation Sinai. Jewish day schools throughout South Africa, and in fact throughout the world – in London, Manchester, Sidney, Melbourne, Rio, Buenos Aires and many other cities – are participating in this program, where parents and children learn Torah together at the start of the school day. It is so exciting and special that parents and children on different continents and across different time zones will all be gathering together to learn the same passage in the Torah – the Shema.
This campaign is an awesome demonstration of Jewish unity and the power of Torah not only to unify thousands of Jews all over the world but to connect us to generations of Jews who came before us, all of whom said the Shema and had a strong tradition of parents and children learning Torah together. Generation Sinai is sending out a very loud message to the world about the importance of Torah learning in general, and specifically between parents and children.
Children’s Torah learning sustains the world
There is an amazing passage in the Gemara (Shabbat 119b) which says that if the opportunity to build the Temple arose but in order to do so children would need to be taken out of school, away from their Torah learning, the children’s learning actually takes precedence. If the Mashiach were to arrive, even if he were in need of manpower to help build the Temple, we would not take the children out of school in order to go help build the Temple, because their learning is more important. As the Gemara says: “The world exists in the merit of children learning Torah.”
One would think that the building of the Temple takes precedence, as it has such long-term and far-reaching implications; what could be more important than building G-d’s house? Yet we see from this Gemara that children’s Torah learning is everything. There is nothing comparable to the power of Torah learning in sustaining the Jewish people – both on a national level and for each one of us in our own personal lives. It is our heart and soul, collectively and individually.
This point is illustrated by a passage in the Talmud which describes a crucial moment in Jewish history, when one of the great Talmudic Sages, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, was presented with an awful choice and had to make a split-second decision. The Roman general who had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple had just been appointed Caesar. This newly appointed Caesar had great respect for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and because of this, he told him that he will grant him any one request. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had the opportunity to save the city of Jerusalem from destruction, as well as the Temple; but he was afraid to ask for too much lest he get nothing, and so he said to the Caesar, Ten li Yavneh vechachameha, “Give me Yavneh and its Sages,” as Yavneh at that time was the hub of Torah learning.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked that Yavneh be spared, because He realised that the future of the Jewish people was more dependent on Torah learning than on the Temple. However precious and important the Temple in Jerusalem was, without Torah learning there would be no Jewish people; for it is through Torah learning that we understand the Divine vision of who we are, where we come from, why we are here and what we need to be doing.
The importance of Torah study
Generation Sinai is sending out a very loud, powerful message that Torah learning underpins our destiny, and is at the heart and soul of what it means to be a Jew. It attests to the importance of the bond between parents and children, as our heritage and values are passed from one generation to the next. Torah learning gives us the inspiration and direction for the future, and this is why the Talmud says Talmud Torah k’negged kulam, “The study of Torah is equivalent to all [the mitzvot].”
Elsewhere, where the Gemara talks about the questions that we are going to be asked in the heavenly court in the World to Come, the Gemara says that one of the very first questions we are going to be asked is Kavata itim laTorah, “did you set aside time to learn Torah?”
Torah learning is a daily obligation. We all need to set aside a fixed time for Torah study. It is a fundamental part of who we are, the very oxygen we breathe; it’s what sustains us as individuals and as the Jewish people. We must ensure that the effect of Generation Sinai is not just for today; the magnitude of this experience should inspire us to continue learning throughout the year.
Torah learning supersedes all
One may wonder, why is learning Torah so important, so much so that it is equivalent to all the other mitzvot? Why is Kavata itim laTorah one of the first questions we are going to be asked in the heavenly court?
One aspect is the clarity that the Torah gives us. The Gemara (Sotah, 21a) compares this world to a walk in a dark forest, where we can’t see what lies ahead. A candle will illuminate our immediate surroundings and help us somewhat in finding our way; but when the sun rises in the morning, the entire forest is illuminated. Then the dangers and uncertainties of the forest disappear and we can see exactly what is going on. When the sun rises, we are able to see the road signs guiding us where to go.
The Gemara uses this analogy to explain the difference between the mitzvot and Torah learning itself. We think of Torah learning as being just one of the mitzvot, but it is actually in a category of its own. The mitzvot are the physical actions we do, and they are certainly important as Judaism believes in a practical way of life, not just in theory. But the mitzvot, says the Gemara, are like holding the candle in the dark forest; they illuminate somewhat. Torah learning, however, is like the rising sun which illuminates the signposts, enabling us to see everything and know where to go. As the verse states, “For the mitzvah is a lamp, and the Torah [learning] is light”.
Life in this world can indeed be very confusing; but the Torah provides us with the clarity necessary to navigate through it. We can only begin to understand our lives and our purpose on this earth through learning Hashem’s wisdom. Often we are so busy with the immediate tasks in life that we don’t see the full picture; we don’t fully understand the values and the vision behind Judaism. But when we learn Torah, we get to see everything in our lives with clarity and the right perspective, which keeps us on track in the dark forest of this world. We need to know why we are here and how we can achieve our purpose in this world, and the way to achieve that is through learning Torah.
Torah study is not merely an intellectual pursuit
It’s important to realise that Torah learning is not just an intellectual pursuit. Of course Torah learning is an awesome intellectual experience because it is the wisdom of Hashem, but it should not be regarded simply as a book of information. There is an indispensible spiritual and the emotional component to it.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz, one of our great rabbinic thinkers of the twentieth century, says that this is why, when G-d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai (which we will commemorate in a few days’ time, on Shavuot), the event was accompanied by thunder and lightning. It was an amazing experience, not simply because it was the handing over of information. The thunder and lightning, the sound effects and everything that happened, was not there as a prop or side show to the giving over of the text. Rav Yerucham says the reason the world literally shook when the Torah was given is because it is Hashem’s wisdom and therefore it had such a powerful impact.
The Torah is not just information, and therefore we must not treat it as such. Learning Torah is not like learning a maths text book or a history lesson. It’s Hashem’s wisdom and thoughts, and enables us to connect with Him. It has a spiritual energy that comes with it and we have to be sensitive to it and allow it to have an effect on us. The spiritual energy of the Torah connects with the neshama within each one of us, and therefore the experience of learning Torah is not something that can be explained in purely clinical terms. There is something much more powerful about it, something which touches us at our very core, and that is why Generation Sinai has had such an impact.
For the last three years, there has been such an outpouring of emotion following Generation Sinai. It touched a chord within people, more so than any ordinary experience. This is the power of Torah learning: ultimately, it is there to bring us joy and inspiration. Our Judaism is not meant to be a burden that weighs us down. It is meant to be uplifting, to show us a much better way to live life and become better people. We find inspiration in Judaism when we are grounded in Torah learning; it opens our hearts and enables us to better understand G-d’s wisdom, thus bringing us to a higher level of inspiration and joy.
This is why in the blessings said before learning Torah we say: Veha’arev na, asking Hashem to “make the words of the Torah sweet in our mouths.” Torah study is meant to be joyful, something from which we can derive real pleasure. And because the Torah is so vast and there are so many different topics to learn, each one of us can and should find that part which speaks to us personally and brings us joy. Torah study should be an integral part of our lives, not just another task to be completed, but something which uplifts and inspires us.
By participating in Generation Sinai, we are making the loudest possible proclamation – to ourselves and to the world – that Torah learning is everything. It is the foundation of who we are as a people and as individuals. It is our guiding light, the source of our inspiration and joy, the driving force behind our destiny and the basis for our future.