Our modern culture teaches us to “stop and smell the roses.” To relax and “take a load off.” We push ourselves too relentlessly, we are told. We need to take time and “de-stress,” as if all actions we perform are of equal value and weight.
It is not that we need to stop what we are doing so much as we have to prioritize what we are doing in order for our lives have value and meaning. Our teachings are clear. Rather than put aside all tasks, there are two for which we should feel an unrelenting urgency – to learn Torah and to repent. The Torah is clear about this urgency in the Shema: “These words, which I command you this day, make them as a sign upon your heart and between your eyes…”
Our Sages comment that the word hayom, “this day,” means “the Torah should be ever fresh in your mind, as though you received the Torah today.” As for the duty to repent, Rambam teaches, “A man should always regard himself as if his death were imminent and think that he may die this very hour, while still in a state of sin.
This day. Each day matan Torah. Each day Rosh Hashanah.
But it is not enough to simply “learn,” to acquire information and knowledge. To learn Torah is to repent, is to be the kind of person we are meant to be. Learning itself implies, first and foremost, that derech eretz kadmah l’Torah – before Torah comes menschlichkeit. In other words, without derech eretz Torah learning is a flat, recitation of content and not the meaningful, affirming, and ennobling journey of a Jew’s life.
How do we know that derech eretz must precede the learning of Torah? The long and short answer is Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer. For it was on Lag B’Omer that the plague that caused the death of twenty-four thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva ended.
Twenty-four thousand brilliant young scholars. Lost! It is unimaginable. To lose a single young person is a horror beyond measure. Three young scholars, a national tragedy. To lose so many – how do we even comprehend it?
Like us, our Sages wrestled with this same question. Their response? The students died because they did not sufficiently respect one another. Their scholarship, Torah learning, and erudition were taken for granted. For them, Torah learning was pursued as any other form of knowledge, without an excitement, enthusiasm, and passion resulting in new insights, renewed motivation, and novel ideas. They reveled in their brilliance rather than the brilliance of Torah. They were “satisfied” with their learning, not challenged or enlivened by it.
Lag B’Omer came to be known as “Scholar’s Festival” to remind those who devote themselves exclusively to the pursuit of Torah learning that there is more to Torah learning than quantity of book knowledge and text absorption. Torah study encompasses the quality of learning as well, the love and devotion for fellow students, an excitement for the Divine word, growing sensitivity and feelings emanating from the subject being studied, a reaction to learning Torah that is to be likened to that of Matan Torah.
But the underlying, unstated arrogance of the young scholar? That was then. This is now. We have certainly learned the lesson of Lag B’Omer, no?
Each day! Hayom!
Think of the lack of respect displayed at the recent funeral of the great gaon Rav Shmuel Wosner, zt”l. The horror of the suffocating stampede, the pushing and shoving and chaos when they “they did not show each other respect.” Stuffing thousands of people into a space meant for hundreds could not but result in a tragedy that was the opposite of the honor due to someone one who epitomized Matan Torah and Shavuot.
This day we receive Torah. This day we repent as on Rosh Hashanah, as if it is our last. By that measure, we must assess ourselves and determine if, to our shame, we fall short. For none of us can face God knowing that, a priori, we have done that which is shameful.
Do we not constantly ask God to help us avoid shame? When we bless the new moon, we ask for “a life in which there is no shame, no humiliation.” In Birkat Al Hatzaddikim in Shemoneh Esrei we pray, “Put our lot with them forever and we will not be ashamed.”
In the Shacharis berachah right before Shema we ask God to “unify our hearts to love and fear Your name and may we not feel shame for all eternity.”
Chazal were wise to include a plea that we not be shamed in the midst of our heartfelt pleas for Torah tools. Shavuot must be integrated with Rosh Hashanah, Torah with repentance, learning with derech eretz – otherwise we push, we shove, we bring about unspeakable tragedy.
We create a Lag B’Omer.
The charge to make each day of learning like Yom Matan Torah rests not only with students but with their teachers as well. Everyone involved in teaching Torah would do well to reflect and ask: Am I seeking new methods and exciting approaches for our Torah presentations? Am I creative and innovative in my Torah methodology and curriculum?
It is incumbent on students to learn. It is incumbent on teachers to teach as we want our students to learn. The goal of effective Torah education must be to attempt to make each day, every day, a unique and special experience for students so that they leave our classrooms as our forefathers departed from Sinai – awed and inspired.
Each and every day.
The Midrash in Tanchuma (Ki Tavo) sums it up: What is meant by “this day”? Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not ordained these precepts for Israel until now? Surely the year in which this verse was stated was the fortieth? Why does the Scripture therefore state: “this day”? This is what Moses meant when he addressed Israel: “Every day let the Torah be as dear to you as if you had received it this day from Mount Sinai.”
Every day a Shavuot. Every day a Rosh Hashanah.
Every day is Yom Matan Torah.
Each and every very day the excitement, enthusiasm, and vigor of being a committed and learned Jew must be renewed and reinforced, and the Torah must be received anew, as if it were being given at Sinai that every day.
The joy and satisfaction of Torah study must not be limited to special days or occasions. It is to be ongoing, continually renewed, and continually renewing. Torah study must always spiritually excite and emotionally uplift. It is for this reason the Keli Yakar says the same enthusiasm and ecstasy that occurred at the Revelation at Sinai must be searched for and found every day.
The Keli Yakar posits the same rationale for the Torah’s omission of the name Rosh Hashanah and its direct association with din and repentance. Should a man sin all year and think of repenting only as he comes closer to Yom Hashem, when God sits in judgment? No. Rather, he should imagine that God sits in judgment recording his deeds everyday. If he can think this way, he will continually engage in repentance, each and every day.
He will know no shame.