Let’s Learn Together – the art of learning Torah with your family (Edited Transcript)
This morning, the Friday before Shavuot and also the first day of Sivan, a momentous event took place in our community: Generation Sinai, which was a gathering of parents and children for Torah learning. Jewish day schools around the country, in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban and Port Elizabeth, participated in this project. Thousands of children and their parents gathered to learn for the first half hour of the school day, all studying the same texts. The Gemara says that the world exists in merit of the children who learn Torah. One can imagine the spiritual energy of the thousands and thousands of Jewish children throughout our country learning Torah with their parents. It has had a very powerful and positive influence on all of us.
I would like to address the parents and children who participated in Generation Sinai as well as the entire community because this programme serves as the guiding principle for moving forward; it is a very important pillar upholding our community and our vision for the future. Torah learning has the power to transform all of us and, in particular, to strengthen the bond between parents and children.
Setting aside fixed times for Torah study
The Gemara tells us that one of the questions we will be asked in the Heavenly Court is Kavata itim laTorah “did you set aside time to learn Torah?” Obviously, in the World to Come our whole lives are placed before G-d’s scrutiny but the fact that this is one of the questions listed by the Gemara shows that it has particular importance in G-d’s eyes. We will need to answer to this question when we get up to heaven but we also need to understand its relevance and importance for us in our lives here and now.
It is interesting to note that the question does not say, “did you learn Torah?” but rather “did you set aside time to learn Torah?” This phrasing gives us insight into the power of learning Torah and specifically the power of parents and children learning together. The two dimensions of this mitzvah – Torah learning in itself and Torah learning between parents and children – have the power and energy to can transform our lives for the good. Torah learning has to be a central part of who we are as individuals and as part of the South African Jewish community at large; it holds the future of our community.
What does it mean to set aside time to learn Torah? On a practical level, it means that there are certain times during the day or the week that are set aside for the purpose of learning. But given that Judaism is about spirituality, about forming an emotional connection to G-d, why is there such emphasis on intellectual learning and furthermore, on having fixed times for it? In addition, we find the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, chapter 1, says Aseh toratcha keva, “make your Torah fixed.” It means we don’t just learn it; we have to set fixed times for it. Why?
Putting first things first
On one level it is actually a very useful strategy to get the job done. In his book Putting First Things First, Stephen Covey explains that time management is about determining which things in life are important and which things are urgent. There are things in life which are urgent but not important, and things in life which are important but not urgent; there are things that are urgent and important and things which are neither. One of the biggest challenges in time management, says Covey, is that the urgent things which are not necessarily important, push aside important things which are not urgent. There are many urgent things, from emails to meetings and to all kinds of urgent things that require our attention in the course of one’s day. For example, a telephone ringing is very urgent; when it rings it demands to be answered immediately though it is might not be so important.
There are certain things in life, however, which are important though not urgent. It is these things which are most vulnerable to our time management skills. For example, exercising; it is important but not urgent – if you don’t exercise today, you can exercise tomorrow. Spending time with family is also very important but not urgent; we can do it tomorrow. Likewise, learning Torah – we can do it tomorrow. Helping people, giving charity – these kinds of things are very important but most of the time they are not urgent and therefore, unfortunately, get pushed aside.
The greatest impediment to us living a meaningful life is that the urgent though not important things push aside the important though not necessarily urgent things. I recall once seeing a practical demonstration of this concept: the demonstrator took an empty plastic jar and put sand, stones, pebbles and slightly bigger rocks inside the jar, in that order. In the end, the big rocks could not fit. Then he did the experiment by reversing the order, putting in the big rocks first, then the slightly smaller stones, then the pebbles and then the sand, and everything fitted. The message was that if you put the big rocks in first everything else will fit; if you put the big rocks in last, they won’t. The rocks represent the important things which are not urgent. If we put them in your diary first, then all the urgent matters can fit in around them. On a very practical level, this means that these things must be scheduled in – time to exercise, time to spend with family and time to learn Torah.
The wisdom of our Sages preceded the wisdom of Covey by thousands of years. The Talmudic Sages instructed us have fixed times for learning Torah; it must take priority and everything else will fit in around it. This is what fixing set times for learning means on a strategic, practical level and this applies as well to setting aside time for learning with our children because if we don’t actually set aside a fixed time for it, it will never happen.
Learning Torah is about forming a relationship – with the Torah, our children, and with G-d.
In addition to having fixed times for Torah learning, there is something even more profound and that is the relationship being formed. When we set aside fixed times for something we show that it is important to us. Just like we diarise meetings because they are important we must schedule time with our children such that it becomes part of what we habitually do. Designating certain times as non-negotiable, setting aside time to learn and time to learn with our children, takes Torah learning to a higher dimension, strengthening our relationship with our children and with the Torah itself.
The mitzvah to learn Torah is not purely an academic, intellectual mitzvah; there is an emotional dimension to it as well. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that in the blessings we recite before the learning of Torah we say asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu la’asok bedivrei Torah “blessed are You Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to be involved in Torah.” It does not say lilmod, “to learn” but rather la’asok, “to be involved.” There has to be a relationship, an emotional connection to Torah; we must be passionate about it. The consistency in one’s setting aside specific times to learn shows the commitment to Torah and the emotional bond with it. G-d does not want us just to learn; He wants us to fix times for learning because that shows a commitment to His Torah and to Him.
Seeing the world from G-d’s perspective and bringing Him into our lives
A bond with the Torah is a bond with G-d because when we learn Torah, we are actually learning how G-d thinks. To use human terms by way of example, when we read a book we get into the mind of the author. Likewise, when we learn the Torah which G-d has given us – the written Torah, namely the Five Books which He dictated to Moses, and the Oral Law now codified in the Talmud, comprised of the concepts and principles that G-d gave to Moses and which have been passed down through the generations – we connect with G-d as the author of the Torah. This is what is so powerful about learning Torah; it enables us to connect with G-d and see the world from His perspective.
More than that, learning Torah brings the Shechina, the Divine Presence, into our lives. We know that even though G-d is everywhere there are certain places where His presence is felt more intensely; for example, in a shul; the Land of Israel; the city of Jerusalem. These are places that have extra holiness because the Shechina is more present. However, our Sages teach us that whenever we learn Torah, wherever we are, the Divine Presence comes to be with us, and by learning Torah we bring the spiritual energy and holiness of G-d’s presence into our day-to-day lives. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says in chapter 3, Shnayim sheyoshvim v’yesh beineihem divrei Torah, Shechina shruya beineihem “if there are two people sitting and there are words of Torah exchanged between them, the Divine Presence comes to dwell with them.” The next Mishnah carries this idea further, saying that three people sitting at a table and conversing in Torah, ke’ilu achlu mishulchano shel Makom “it is as if they have eaten from the table of Hashem.” Certainly, the Friday night table and the Shabbos lunch table are perfect opportunities to have words of Torah spoken. It is as if we are eating off G-d’s table, because wherever there are words of Torah G-d’s presence dwells.
The Midrash explains that G-d commanded us to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, as a place for His presence to dwell because He desires to be near His Torah. The Midrash compares G-d’s relationship to the Torah to a king who has an only daughter. He does not want her to get married because he wants to remain near her. A prince comes to marry her and so the king agrees on the condition that the prince make a dwelling place for the king to come and stay with them. So too G-d said to the Jewish People: I am giving you My Torah but I have to be with it. Build me a Mishkan, a Tabernacle, so that I can be with My Torah. The message in this analogy is that Hashem and His Torah are inextricably linked. When we set aside time to learn His Torah we bring His presence into our lives; there is a whole new spiritual energy and sanctity that comes with learning Torah.
Bridging the generation gap
Many people struggle with the generation gap between parents and children. Indeed, parents and children are from different generations and have grown up with different circumstances. How are they to communicate? What common ground do they have? When parents and children sit down to learn together they are bringing G-d into their relationship, which helps strengthen the unity and bond between them. This bond is not only between the parents and their children, but spans generations, going all the way back to Mount Sinai. This is why this project of parents and children learning together has been called Generation Sinai. When we are learning we are linking up with all of the generations that have come before us. We are not just learning on our own, or strengthening a bond between parents and children; we are linking ourselves back in time, all the way back to Mount Sinai.
This is a very powerful experience, not just on an intellectual level but on a spiritual and emotional level as well: we are forming a connection between us and G-d; between parent and child; and between us and the previous generations back to Sinai. We are all learning the same Torah, thus bridging the generation gap, spanning thousands of years. A parent and child learning in the Middle Ages in a ghetto somewhere in pre-Renaissance Europe and a parent and child learning in the beginning of the 21st century at the southern tip of Africa are learning the same material. It is an awesome experience to be part of this, something which no other people on earth has the privilege of doing and this is what was so exciting about participating in Generation Sinai.
Linking back to Sinai
Parents and children learning together is such a profound experience as it connects us back to the most awesome event in human history, when G-d spoke and our ancestors heard His words Anochi Hashem Elokecha, “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt”; the Ten Commandments; and the Torah which was given at Mount Sinai. And this is why it says in chapter 4 of the Book of Devarim, verse 9 Rak hishamer lecha “be careful and guard yourself.” We are commanded not to forget the things our eyes saw and to make these things known to our children and to our children’s children; to tell them about the day that we stood before Hashem at Mount Sinai.
The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, says that it is from this verse that we derive the obligation to teach Torah to our children, thus linking them to the revelation at Sinai. In his comments on the Ramban, Rav Mordechai Gifter points out that we are not simply learning a text, some interesting facts or useful insights for life; we are in fact learning what G-d gave us. Every time a parent and a child communicate they continue this line of tradition.
Shavuot is the time of year we celebrate the anniversary of receiving the Torah 3320 years ago, when G-d came down and spoke to us. If we calculate four generations to every century, the total is roughly 130 generations back, which is not a lot. If we divide that by the typical overlap of three generations – grandparents, parents and children – we are talking about roughly 65 zeidas and bobbas ago; the gap is not that wide. This experience of Generation Sinai, of parents and children learning together continues this tradition. We are Jews because we have received the tradition from our parents and grandparents, going all the way back to Sinai. This link to Sinai is so important; Jews who do not accept the fact that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, Jews who reject their tradition – a few generations later they disappear altogether. Generation Sinai is about continuing that link.
Learning Torah with passion
The power of learning is that it is not just an intellectual experience but an emotional experience as well. On the one hand, we need to make our Torah learning fixed, as the Mishnah quoted above states – Aseh toratcha keva, make your Torah learning fixed; on the other hand, there is another Mishnah, also in chapter 1 of Pirkei Avot, that says Heveh shoteh batzama et divreihem “drink their [the Sages] words with thirst.” In his comments on this Mishnah, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky explains that a person can drink water for one of two reasons: either because he knows it is healthy and he has to drink it because one cannot survive without it, or because he is genuinely thirsty. The same applies to Torah; we can learn Torah because we feel we have to, knowing that it is healthy and that we must do it in order to be a good Jew, or we can learn because we are thirsty and have a passion and an interest, being on a quest for the truth and seeking a closeness to G-d. Torah learning has to be fixed and structured but it must also have passion and thirst, a sense of longing for it and a desire to discover new things.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner comments on the first Mishnah we quoted, Aseh toratcha keva, “make your Torah fixed,” that the Mishnah does not simply say “make the Torah fixed,” but make your Torah fixed; Torah belongs to you. You must have a sense of ownership and show you are interested in it. Generally, when we have a body of knowledge we get the information and that’s it. But Torah is not so. Rav Chaim Volozhiner compares the study of Torah to a baby suckling on its mother. The mother will produce as much milk as the baby needs, not a fixed amount. As long as the baby needs it and is sucking, there will be milk. So too the Torah looks like a fixed amount, but the more that one delves into it, the more one shows an interest in it, the more it will have what to offer in terms of depth of understanding.
Thus, the Aseh toratcha keva, “make your Torah fixed,” means there must be a passion and an interest in it, a constant sense of renewal because there is nothing as boring as old information. The Torah is not old and has endless depth. It is the same material but we can delve deeper and deeper because it is the wisdom of Hashem. It can relate to a pupil in grade one, a matric student or an adult. A beginner and a Torah scholar can learn the same verse because it is the wisdom of Hashem and is therefore infinite. We witnessed this with the Generation Sinai project, how Torah has something for everyone, for people from all different age groups, different schools and different backgrounds.
The beauty of Torah is that it can be understood on multiple levels. Knowledge can be complicated but it is not necessarily deep. Complicated means it is difficult to understand but depth means it can be understood on multiple levels. This endless depth, the newness and the freshness, is what actually makes it come alive such that we want more and more of it. We should not be learning Torah out of a sense of “this is what I have to do,” ticking it off like a chore. We must learn Torah with a sense of thirst, with passion.
Torah is our guiding light
Part of the passion that we find in Torah is the light and clarity, the sense of purpose and perspective that it brings to our lives. We need to focus on this because it is what guides us. When we learn we grasp (somewhat) the way that Hashem looks at the world, in its true perspective.
The Dubna Maggid uses the following parable to show us how Torah is a light for us: imagine a person who buys precious stones from a seller who turns out to be a fraudster. He buys stones that look precious and is indeed very proud of his purchase which he thought he got for a great price but in fact, they are worthless. He takes the stones to show them to a wise man, but arrives at night. The wise man tells him it is too dark to have a look at the stones and they must wait till the morning. In the morning, the sun comes out and in the clear light of day he sees that these stones were forgeries. They put them under hot water and the colour runs off; the stones actually melt.
The Dubna Maggid uses this analogy to explain the passage in the Gemara which says that the evil inclination is like a stone, and if it comes to tempt you to sin, drag him into the Beit Ha’Midrash, the house of study. There are many things in life which people think are very valuable and important, but when we examine these things – be they material things or physical pleasure – under the light of Torah we see that they are actually not so important; they melt away.
How do we know what’s important in life? How do we give these values to our children? How do we ensure that our children find their way forward in this complex and confusing world? When we learn Torah with them and they have the light of Torah in their lives, we give them the opportunity of looking at the world with the clear light of Torah and seeing what has true value.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot which says that a true Torah scholar is like a ma’ayan hamitgaber, an overflowing spring. He explains that spring water pumps through, even if there is mud on the ground covering it. So too a true Torah scholar is a ma’ayan hamitgaber, a spring of water of increasing strength. It does not matter what else is going on in our lives, even if we are a bit off kilter, as long as we have the fresh waters of pure Torah pumping through our lives which will clean us and give us the energy and the proper perspective.
This has to be our vision, as individuals and as a community. As long as we have the fresh, clean waters of pure Torah learning pumping through us, we are on the right track. The Torah will clean away all the impurities and, using the analogy of the light, it will show us how to proceed forward. It ensures our spiritual health and wellbeing, as individuals, as families and as a community.
As we approach the great festival of Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, and having experienced the awesome power of parents and children learning Torah together, let us dedicate ourselves anew to the value of learning Torah as individuals, in our families and in our respective communities. Torah is the life-giving water pumping through us, the clear light of day that enables us to see everything in the right perspective. This is also why, please G-d, ten days after Shavuot there will be a spectacular time of Torah learning, a mass convention for our entire community called Sinai Indaba, linking us to Mount Sinai, the source of all our values. With the life-giving water of Torah we can all be uplifted, purified and have a sense of perspective, and live with inspiration and clarity.
As we prepare for Shavuot let us make time to learn; let us set fixed times for ourselves, our families, at the Shabbos table and during the week, and make Torah a part of our lives.