The festival of Simchat Torah heralds a new year of learning as we scroll back to the beginning of Bereishit and commence our study of Torah once again. As we begin new academic years and possibly new commitments to our own Jewish learning, it prompts us to think about learning itself.
Three texts from our tradition define for us an approach to Jewish learning, one that we can take into account as we select academic courses, choose options for learning Hebrew or Jewish topics, decide on lectures and events to attend.
1. Levi and Rabbi Shimon were studying with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Rabi). They were learning the weekly sidra and the finished the book. Levi said, ‘Now let’s study Proverbs’. Rabbi Shimon said, ‘Let’s study Psalms.’ He coerced Levi and brought out the Psalms. When he arrived at the verse, ‘For in God’s Torah is God’s delight’(Ps 1:2) Rabi explained and said ‘this means that a person only learns Torah from a topic they enjoy (hafetz b’libo). Levi got up saying, ‘Rabi, you have given us permission to leave’!
2. Rashi comments on the verse ‘If you walk in My statutes and keep My Commandments and perform them’ (Leviticus 26:3). He asks, ‘What does it mean to walk in My statutes?’ Since the verse already mentions the Commandments and their performance, ‘walking in My statutes’ must mean learning about them. He cross references this to the verse ‘And you shall study them and you shall do them (u’lemadetem..l’asotam)’ (Deut 5:1)
3. Rabban Gamliel said ‘It is good to join the study of Torah to some kind of work (derech eretz) for the effort required by both robs sin of its power. Torah study without work will end up being useless and cause sin. (Pirke Avot 2:2)
From our texts we then ask ourselves does our learning delight the heart? (hafetz b’libo) for only if it does so will it sustain and motivate us to want to learn. Do we use our learning to make decisions about enacting these Torah teachings making them useful and positive for our lives? (u’lemadetem..l’asotam) Do we see our learning as a means to understand our moral dilemmas and improve our world? (derech eretz). If we can engage in that kind of learning this year, not only will be truly find meaning and fulfilment in learning the Torah texts but Torah itself will be lived through our very lives.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.