STUDY AS A LADDER TO HEAVEN
Rosh Hashanah Morning
September 30, 2008
For those of you who are sitting here wondering why there are so, so many words and so many prayers during the High Holidays, I have good news. There is another way to reach heaven besides praying all day.
Last night we examined the first of the four questions that we’ll be asked at the end of our lives. This morning we’ll look at the the second question. “Did you set aside time to study regularly?” What a wonderful technology we have that commands us not only not to rejoice but to think!
The way we learn how to discern and behave is by studying the examples given in our sacred wisdom texts. As we are confronted with new situations every day that require judgment, we’re grateful for the guidance that leads us to good decisions. I recently read that South Koreans study Talmud for its intellectual benefits. For us, it’s something more. It’s a path to heaven.
For many of us, our interest in Judaism has little to do with ritual. It’s the delving into text that excites us and awakens us to looking at the world through God’s eyes. Some call this wisdom.
This is, in fact, how I started my journey of becoming a Jew. When I was 25 and a new mother, I began going to Shabbat morning services led by Rabbi Harold Schulweis. This was in 1970 and Schulweis was a pioneer in encouraging participation in Torah study during the service.
As an English major, I was right at home unpacking the suitcase within each word. Although I was a novice, I bravely entered the conversation, amazed at my delight in the Torah. I’d go home and write in my Chumash all that I could remember from the discussion. It was more than engaging and challenging. The ideas were helpful in my life, and I began to feel a magnetic pull between me and the ancient narrative.
On the other hand, the prayers were unfamiliar and irrelevant; they were no threat to my agnosticism. But one day everything changed. As the congregation sang, “She is a tree of life to those that hold fast to her”, and the Torah was returned to the ark, I burst into tears. It would be a week before I would experience the new insights that were inspired by the rabbi’s questions, and I felt that a visit with a beloved friend had ended. That never happened after a class at UCLA, and now I knew that Torah was more than Shakespeare.
For two thousand years, Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, has been a religious duty. Flavius, a Roman Jewish writer in the first century of the Common Era, said that the highest Jewish aim is to educate our children well.
When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, Jewish academies of learning replaced animal sacrifices. The rabbis declared that there are two reasons for study. First, it leads to practical observances. Second, it is a religious duty of the highest order. The scholars in the academies argued which was greater, study or practice. Rabbi Akiba, the winner, said, “Study, because it leads to practice.”
Learning was not only for scholars. Maimonides declared that it was for the sick or healthy, old or young, poor or rich, and all should study day and night. The morning prayers include a prayer for study because it was assumed that everyone would perform the mitzvah during the day. Even if someone only said the Shema morning and night, they fulfilled the commandment.
At the beginning of our morning prayers, we thank God for our ability to distinguish between day and night. Before we acknowledge the gifts of being able to see, have clothes to wear, and strength to stand, we begin at the beginning, praising God for consciousness.
A little later in the service we say in the Shema, “And you will teach your children diligently, speaking of Torah when you are sitting in your house, when you are out and about, and when you lie down and rise up.” The Talmud ruled that parents could not live in a city that doesn’t have a school and the class could not have more than 25 students. There was also no tuition.
You may be wondering what exactly I mean by Torah. The scroll behind me that we call the Torah contains the Five Books of Moses. Imagine the scroll in the center of the wheel with many holy spokes of sharp interpretation and commentary like Talmud and Maimonides leading to it. All this is also called Torah. The word, Torah, coming from the root meaning “to shoot or fire”, implies the intensity and vigor of the student’s effort to know.
Don’t imagine study as sitting in the library serenely perusing serious texts and taking notes in the margins of the book. Study was and remains a passionate communal activity in Judaism that isn’t always sweet. Students of Torah took it so seriously that the Talmud describes a student taking a sword to his teacher for teaching him incorrectly. The debates were fiery and all for the sake of heaven.
Speaking personally, I’ve never come to blows over a Biblical verse. On the contrary, my best memories of being in the seminary are the times I studied with in chevruta, which is study with a partner, with whom I offered my freshest ideas and risked revealing my ignorance. I include this relationship as intimately and fondly as I regard my relationships with my parents, children, siblings, and espoused lover.
The great question is why Judaism regards learning as central to its practice. Why isn’t enough to pray and do good deeds? Pirke Avot, The Wisdom of the Ancestors, written around 200 CE, says, “No one is free except the one who is immersed in Torah study.” Historically, this has been one of the secrets of Jewish survival. No matter how oppressed we have been, no one could take away our learning, and that has kept us free thinkers.
More deeply, the rabbis believed that an ignorant person cannot truly be devout. Only through learning can we recognize what is holy. In the Mishnah, one of the wisdom commentaries, we get a catalog of things we can do that will benefit us here on earth and in the world to come.
They include honoring parents, making peace between two people, and arriving at the House of Study, the Bet Midrash early and staying late. The last line says, “And the study of Torah is equal to them all.” If we learn well, we will naturally behave as the Mishnah says. Torah is an instruction manual for living. In it we learn that God is reason as well as mystery.
In Eastern Europe, the Bet Midrash, the house of study, held a greater sanctity than the synagogue. The Talmud tells us to run from the synagogue to the Bet Midrash, not the other way around. To get children to run to study, the community made a child’s first learning sweet.
At five, the child’s father carried him to the the teacher for his first lesson. The teacher showed the child the letter “tof”, the letter that begins the word, Torah, and laced it with honey. The child then traced the letter with his finger, licking it afterwards. The child would eventually learn from the Talmud that if your father and your teacher both send you on an errand, you do your teacher’s errand first.
Because of the presence of women in Jewish scholarship and religious life today, Judaism, an ancient wisdom tradition, has been offered a new perspective from which to study Torah. If the ultimate intention of Jewish study is to draw near to the One who has given us the ability to think, becoming familiar with the divine feminine is essential for complete knowledge. Much of energy in new forms of worship and interpretation in most Jewish communities, including the Orthodox, comes from women.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th Century philosopher, rabbi, and peace activist, looked at the word for education in Hebrew, Chinuch, as inspiration for its intention. It means not only to train but to dedicate and consecrate. It is the same root for Hanukkah, rededication of the Temple, and Hanukat HaBayit, dedicating a house with the affixing of a mezuzah. Heschel wrote, “We glorify not erudition but study and dedication to learning. It is not how much we know but how much we learn.” More than knowledge, we love study.
There is the story of a learned rabbi whose community found no light in his house after midnight. He was dismissed for not studying enough. Our tradition regards study as an act analogous to prayer. Heschel recommended studying Torah, rabbinic literature, and the prayer book. From them we learn that words are commitments. We study orally and musically, not silently, to fulfill the commandment to show our love for God in our actions. It’s a good way to get out of your head.
Before you run off to become good Jews by leaving your jobs to study all the time, listen to the rabbis. That’s what paradise will look like, not life on earth. While we’re here, we must combine study with a livelihood and practice of doing good deeds.
The Talmud uses a metaphor to explain this balance: “the one whose wisdom exceeds his works is like a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few; the wind comes and overturns it upon its face…but the one whose works exceed wisdom, is like a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many, so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow upon it, it cannot be stirred.” A sinful learned person is an abomination; the learned must be good, too. The rabbis also advised worldly occupation even for the scholar.
There is no one higher in Judaism than the teacher. God is called a teacher. The teacher links past and present and creates the future. It is the teacher who reminds us of what we represent. The sages said that more than the calf wishes to suckle, the cow wishes to nurse. That is the relationship of the student to the teacher.
When we began HaMakom, many of us were learned in many fields and may have dabbled in other spiritual paths. Still, something was missing. We wanted Judaism but were unwilling simply to recite words in Hebrew or English that we didn’t understand, so we became a learning congregation. I don’t exaggerate when I say that some of us didn’t know which way to open a prayer book.
Today a quarter of the community have become B’nai Mitzvah after a rigorous eighteen month curriculum. They studied Hebrew, history, rituals, and Torah. This is very good for middle age to keep the mind young. Most profoundly, they found a new way to connect wasn’t just about the heart nor about the head. It was the two together that revealed the divinity within and between them.
Unlike thirteen year-olds who may not return to a synagogue until they marry, many of our students have continued to learn and to teach within our community. We’ve studied both the exoteric and the esoteric. Kabbalah, shamanism, ethics, history, and culture have guided us. Every Wednesday evening, at the hour of power minyan, and every Shabbat morning we gather to study and pray. Besides this, we have an amazing continuing education program headed by Marge Lazar, who will be speaking on Yom Kippur about herself and her work.
If you’d like to get a new perspective on how to live in our challenging albeit interesting times, I invite you to dwell in the eternities with us for a while. You’d be amazed at what a future it has.