These past few weeks we, the Jewish people, have faithfully been counting the Omer, numbering each day as we ascend from Passover to Shavuot. After 49 days of reckoning, our reward will be more than just a piece of cheesecake: Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a special, magical and mystical night of Jewish learning. The question is, however, how many of us will take advantage of such an opportunity?
An old adage teaches us that while others may educate their offspring for gain, Jews educate their children for God. The mitzvah of Talmud Torah, Jewish learning, which claims as its textual basis none other than the Shemah, dates back 2,000 years. Some say that while others ran around sacrificing animals and even people to false gods, we made reading our central sacred act. We were the first people to take the knowledge and responsibility for sacred scripture from religious leaders and put it in the eager hands of the people. Not only does our worship service incorporate learning, with the study of texts and the recitation of Kaddish, but our tradition considers the Beit Ha-Midrash, the house of study, to be of greater sanctity than the Beit HaKnesset, the synagogue.
Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a prominent 20th century Jewish scholar, captured our people’s relationship to learning when he said, “When I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God speaks to me.” Our tradition is replete with references to the importance of Talmud Torah, learning for our souls and our survival. The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 119b) that the very world rests on the breath of children in the schoolhouse. Without a doubt, education and the study of Torah are fundamental to who we are as a people and as individuals. Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School
of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, wrote, “Jewish learning provides a knowledge of Jewish thought, ritual and history even as it permits self-exploration, the search for deeper meaning, and the clarification of values.”
We have long been known as the People of the Book, but we must realize that is not a metaphor. The great Moses Maimonides, the 12th century rabbinic authority, philosopher and royal physician, said in his Mishneh Torah: “Every Jew is required to study Torah, whether poor or rich, healthy or ailing, young or old and feeble. Even a man so poor that he is maintained by charity or goes begging from door to door, as also a man with a wife and children to support, is under the obligation to set aside a definite period during the day and night for the study of the Torah. Until what period in life is one obligated to study Torah? Until the day of one’s death.”
Every person, no matter the circumstances of his or her life, is obligated to continue to learn. God accepts no excuses. In our tradition, this search for meaning has always been communal, studying in chavrutah (traditional study pairs), in cheder (class) and in the beit midrash (house of study). Luckily for us, in today’s Tucson Jewish community, formal and informal learning opportunities abound; there is simply no justification for not showing up at something. Every local
synagogue and Jewish organization offers learning opportunities designed to attract a broad spectrum of the population, staggering days and times, locations and skill levels. The reasons for not joining a class cannot match our responsibility to a God who wants a people both informed and enlightened, who accepts a questioning mind and thirst for knowledge as a sacrament. The excuses of a busy life filled with other things to do, of exhaustion and over-scheduling and commitments, are not enough to disregard and discard a fundamental principle of what it means to be a Jew: learning. This Shavuot, celebrate the Festival of Weeks in the traditional manner, by finding a community and taking advantage of one of the most meaningful ways we can interact with our Maker.
Kelley Gludt is assistant rabbi and education director at Congregation Anshei Israel.