Shavuot: Claiming What’s Ours

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A male businessman's hand holding a golden crown on an open palm. Invitation to fist class. Join privileged group. Fame and success.
29 May 2019
Shavuot

As Shavuot approaches, it seems like a good time to think about our relationship with Torah, and our role in that relationship.

At the beginning of chapter 3 in the Laws of Torah Study, Rambam writes:

Israel was crowned with three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. The crown of priesthood – Aharon got, as it is said, “…him and his seed after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood” (Bamidbar 25:13). The crown of kingship, David got, as it is said, “his seed will be forever…” (Tehillim 89:34). The crown of Torah is set aside, ready and waiting for all of Israel, as it is said, “… Torah, an inheritance for the congregation of Israel” (Devarim 33:4). Anyone who wants, will come and take.

One obvious contrast between these “crowns” is in their availability to the populace: priesthood and kingship are limited to certain families, while Torah is for all. And another difference: two crowns are simply handed over, for eternity; the third is waiting to be claimed – and the pasuk about it makes no guarantees of forever.

Not because the Torah is not ours forever, G-d forbid, but perhaps because “forever” depends on us.

Torah is our inheritance, but just like inheriting the Land of Israel didn’t mean much until we staked our claim through active conquest, we have to actively claim Torah to fully possess it.

How?

Pirkei Avot 6:6 mentions the same three crowns and offers a staggering list of 48 “things” through which one acquires the crown of Torah. I’d like to offer some reflections inspired by just a few(ish):

Talmud – In case it wasn’t obvious, we are reminded that “learning” is a necessary step in Torah acquisition.

So many of us go through life observing but not learning Torah. If we do attend a class, we want our Torah handed to us in a neat package, a 5 or 45-minute soundbite, with a feel-good message and a nice bow on top. But learning is a process, not an outcome. It isn’t always neat, and doesn’t always offer immediate inspiration. Sometimes, we just have to jump in and see what develops – and whatever develops, is ours.

“Hearing with the ear, arrangement of lips, understanding of the heart” – Acquiring Torah requires more than just listening. It’s a fully-body experience – and not just shuckling.

We have to talk, putting something into the process ourselves rather than just sitting back to receive what’s given. We have to plumb the depths of the text to bring it into the depths of our hearts.

“Fear (אימה), fear (יראה), humility, joy” – At the beginning of my post-high school studies in Israel, I found the pages upon pages of Hebrew in Abarbanel’s commentary incredibly daunting – worth two different words for “fear,” not to mention “humility.” So I set a goal: by the end of my time there, I would be able to read Abarbanel like a book. (Okay, it is a book. But you know what I mean.)

As it happened, when it was time to return to America, I found myself packing Abarbanel’s commentary on Bereishit into my carry-on as my chosen airplane reading. I owned that Abarbanel, in a sense far beyond the fact that I’d purchased the volumes. What had been scary was still awe-inspiring, but by viewing that fear as a motivator rather than an obstacle, it came to bring great joy – and we can accomplish that shift for any piece of Torah study, large or small. (Of course, plenty of passages remain daunting, reminding me to maintain a healthy sense of awe and humility at how much more there is to conquer.)

“Argumentation of students” – I love to talk, but few things frustrate me more as a teacher than talking for an hour straight. Occasionally, an adult student will apologize for asking a question or pushing back on a point, and I want to laugh – and hug them.

Please ask! Comment! Argue! How else can either of us truly own what we think we’re learning?

I can say stuff, but until I’m challenged, I can’t be sure of my rights to (or the rightness of) what I’ve said. I can hear stuff, but if I don’t push and dig into it, it will never be mine.

“Scripture, Mishna… minimal sleep” – I remember fondly my ongoing debate with a teacher about the (perceived) differences between learning Gemara and Tanach. “Nobody loses sleep trying to figure out a pasuk like they do trying to work through a sugya!” he insisted. “Actually, last night I couldn’t fall asleep, wondering why Unkelos translates the same phrase differently in different pesukim.”

I never did figure it out, but twenty years later, I still feel an extra connection to the phrase. The effort I invested made it mine – and the same type of conquest works in whatever area of Torah one might choose to pursue.

“Patience” – I once had several advanced students insist they’d gotten the “gist” of a comment in Rashbam and were ready to move on – but they’d all failed to notice the word “no,” which of course altered Rashbam’s entire point.

If we don’t cultivate the patience to really pay attention when we learn, we will not get the gist, and will certainly miss whatever real insight could have been gleaned. There are centuries’ worth of Torah wisdom waiting for us to grab on – but we can’t claim that heritage in an instant.

 “Loving the rebukes… not being arrogant in his learning…” – Most of us accept that Jewish studies for children or adolescents involve learning to read and analyze texts independently, at least to some extent, but it’s a much harder sell in adult education. Though some adult learners relish the opportunity to struggle through a text independently before reviewing it, many disregard the very idea. Some simply don’t feel the thrill (yet?); some say they don’t have enough time to invest. And then there’s this one: “Oh, no, not me; I don’t have the skills!”

Nobody is born with the skills – but everybody can develop them. The first step is accepting the possibility of being wrong, taking the risk of reading a text or offering an answer even when we’re not sure, being open to supportive guidance and correction even if it might leave the occasional bruise on our egos. Like my yoga teacher says, “Don’t be afraid of falling.” Every attempt is a step in the right direction, building (metaphorical) muscles and the ability to stand more firmly as we grow.

“Asks and answers, hears and adds…” Jewish Action magazine recently featured a series of articles portraying “a Tanach revolution” (Gil Student, Winter 2018, p.19) – largely centered around active engagement with texts. Nechama Leibowitz, especially, was known for her emphasis on active learning; in particular, her use of questions and answers. “Passivity… leads people to think they can learn effortlessly, without exertion, without a spiritual struggle with the text” (ibid. p. 21). She didn’t hand down neatly packaged analyses or messages; she challenged her students and left them with questions. And they came back for more.

Of course, sometimes we don’t go for more. It’s not easy to truly be active in our learning; we don’t always feel like struggling, and sometimes there are practical obstacles. But as we prepare to renew our acceptance of the Torah, it’s worth thinking about how we might transcend passive acceptance and actively acquire what’s sitting there waiting for us.

Like one adult student who didn’t grow up with a Torah education, who – after being Shabbos-observant for almost ten years – felt it was time she learned how to read sources on her own rather than relying on others to hand her Torah. And so each week, she would painstakingly read through pesukim and commentaries with me, using word lists and guiding questions to make her way through.

This approach to learning may not produce a “relevant” lesson at the end of each hour; depending on one’s starting point, it might not even produce a coherent read of two lines of Rashi. But if we’re using our tools for acquisition, then at the end of each hour, a little less Torah is just sitting around waiting to be claimed.

It can be daunting. Sometimes it can be almost impossible, trying to find the time and whatever degree of guidance we might require. But the Mishna tells us the crown of Torah is greatest specifically because it demands so much. And we can start small: Follow along on the handout at that shiur; bring it home to review and share with a friend. Read a few pesukim on the parsha and notice: Is there an idea or anomaly that jumps out? Start a notebook of Torah thoughts and questions; even if there’s no time to explore them (yet), that notebook brands a person as committed to active ongoing engagement with Torah study.

And what an example for the next generation, if individuals and communities could demonstrate that commitment.

Little by little, we can take the crown of Torah, staking our claim for all eternity.


Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org. She is also Editor-At-Large at Deracheha: womenandmitzvot.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.