On Shavuos, we thank Hashem for selecting from among the nations and giving us His Torah: “asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim, v’nasan lanu es Toraso.” What is the nature of this special gift? What distinguishes the Torah from other types of wisdom such as medicine, physics, and mathematics?
A superficial answer would be that the Torah encompasses all other wisdoms. As Ben Bag Bag teaches us in Pirkei Avos, “Hafoch bah, va’hafoch bah, d’kola bah – Turn [the Torah] around and around, for everything is in it.” The Zohar reflects this idea in its statement, “Istakeil baOraisa u’bara alma – Hashem looked in the Torah and created the world.” Torah is the blueprint of all of creation.
But there’s more. Secular knowledge and character traits are not connected. A mathematical genius might also be a notorious philanderer; the cruelest Nazi can be a brilliant physician. Torah, however, is different. To properly understand it, one must first be a mentch. “Na’aseh v’nishma – We will do and we will listen,” our ancestors declared. To properly listen – i.e., to understand and absorb the Torah – one must first excel at fulfilling it.
After washing our hands in the morning, the very first verse we recite is “Reishis chachmah yiras Hashem; seichel tov l’chol oseihem – The beginning of wisdom is awareness of Hashem, a good mind for all who perform [the mitzvos].” Rav Yecheskel Abramsky, zt”l, points out that the wording is not “l’chol lomdeihem – for all those who learn them,” but rather “l’chol oseihem – for all those who perform them.” One cannot acquire Torah knowledge without living what one learns.
We are taught, “Sur mei’ra va’aseh tov – Avoid evil and do good.” Tov refers to Torah (as we see form the verse “Ki lekach tov nasati lachem, Torasi al ta’azovu – A goodly merchandise I have given to you; do not forsake My Torah”). We cannot excel in the goodness of Torah unless we avoid evil first. As Rabbeinu Yonah so beautifully explains: The finest aged wine becomes spoiled if poured into a soapy, smelly glass. So, too, the Torah will become ruined in a person with flawed midos.
To reinforce this message in ourselves, we read Megillas Rus on Shavuos – which the Midrash says is the megillah of kindness. To achieve Torah excellence, practicing kindness is vital. In fact, Pirkei Avos lists 48 prerequisites for acquiring Torah. Other bodies of wisdom require diligence and intelligence. Torah needs much more; empathy and humility are required as well.
Be aware, however, that these prerequisites are not self-evident. A person can fool himself and think he is succeeding at Torah despite screaming at family members in the evenings or cheating in business during the day. But true cheishek haTorah (desire of learning), simchas haTorah (joy of learning), and mesikus haTorah (sweetness of Torah) can only come to someone who makes himself a keili, a receptacle, worthy to receive them.
If we wish to experience the true beauty of Torah, we should resolve this Shavuos to rid our minds and our hearts of hatred, grudges, envy, and lust. In that merit, may we all be blessed to experience the sheer wonders of the Torah and all its delicious blessings.