Thursday, March 5, 2020

Relive Your Bar Mitzvah Day (Brachos 63)

Rabbi Dov Lipman is a former Member of the Knesset (MK), Israel’s parliament.  When he discusses his time as a politician, he points out that there’s a fair amount of downtime during parliamentary sessions.  Various speakers will address the assembly, but not all the issues are directly pertinent to every lawmaker in the house.  Nonetheless, they must be present.  And so, inevitably each one has their go-to reading for such occasions. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu is a huge fan of Winston Churchill and was often seen reading various biographies and historical accounts of the great British leader.  Most striking in Lipman’s mind, however, was the sight of a secular MK, Dr. Kalderon, who is scholar of Talmud.  Every spare moment, Dr. Kalderon may be found with a volume of the Gemara in hand, studying assiduously.  Here we find an individual, who considers themselves secular, embracing our sacred text of the Oral Law!  Because the Torah is every Jewish person’s heritage, regardless of their background or observance.

הִלֵּל הַזָּקֵן אוֹמֵר: בִּשְׁעַת הַמַּכְנִיסִין — פַּזֵּר. בִּשְׁעַת הַמְפַזְּרִים — כַּנֵּס. וְאִם רָאִיתָ דּוֹר שֶׁהַתּוֹרָה חֲבִיבָה עָלָיו — פַּזֵּר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״יֵשׁ מְפַזֵּר וְנוֹסָף עוֹד״

Hillel the Elder says: At the time of gathering, disseminate. At the time of dissemination, gather. And if you see a generation for whom Torah is beloved, disseminate it, as it is stated: “There is who scatters, and yet increases.”

פָּתַח רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בִּכְבוֹד תּוֹרָה וְדָרַשׁ: ״הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם״, וְכִי אוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם נִתְּנָה תּוֹרָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל? וַהֲלֹא אוֹתוֹ יוֹם סוֹף אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה הָיָה! אֶלָּא לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁחֲבִיבָה תּוֹרָה עַל לוֹמְדֶיהָ בְּכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם כַּיּוֹם שֶׁנִּתְּנָה מֵהַר סִינַי

Rabbi Yehuda again began to speak in honor of Torah and taught: When Moses took leave of Israel on his last day in this world, he said: “Keep silence and hear, Israel; this day you have become a people.”  But was the Torah given to Israel on that day? Wasn’t that day at the end of forty years since the Torah was given? Rather, it comes to teach that each and every day the Torah (should be) as dear to those who study it, as it was on the day it was given from Mount Sinai.

We’re living in unprecedented times of Torah interest and growth.   This is one of those eras to which Hillel refers when he talks about a generation that loves Torah.  We have tens of thousands of Jews across the globe whose parents did not learn Talmud, and they themselves wouldn’t necessarily identify as strictly observant, and yet they are fascinated by the Talmud, and Torah learning generally.

Daf Yomi is reaching levels that founder, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, never would have imagined.  People from all walks of life, all religious backgrounds and affiliations, are reaching for a volume of the Talmud to join the movement and connect with their heritage.  Rabbi Adam Starr of Atlanta calls Daf Yomi “the biggest global book-club in history.”  Ours is a generation that loves Torah and is thirsting for Hashem’s wisdom.

It almost feels as if the Gemara was just released yesterday and immediately jumped to the New York Times bestseller list.  And that’s how it should feel, according to Rabbi Yehuda.  Every day, we need to wake up and feel like today is the day we stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah. 

‘But I don’t remember ever standing at Sinai!’ you say.  So, let’s try this one: Every day of your life, the Torah should feel like it did on your bar or bat mitzvah day.  The feeling you get from your Judaism should be as awe-inspiring and exciting as that very first day you accepted Torah and mitzvos upon yourself.

That’s why we call the event that happened at Mt. Sinai, ‘Matan Torah’ – the Giving of the Torah, as opposed to the ‘Gift’ (Matana) of the Torah. It’s present tense.  Each day should feel like the Torah is a fresh, new experience.  In fact, based on this teaching, the blessing we recite over the Torah is ‘Baruch ata Hashem nosein haTorah’ – Blessed are You, Hashem, who gives the Torah. 

Our Judaism should never feel dull.  Every occasion of Jewish engagement, we need to approach with enthusiastic, reinvigorated passion.  ‘Each and every day’ our Sages advise, Torah and mitzvos ‘should feel like new in your eyes.’ That takes effort.  And it takes preparation. 

Think about it like this.  When you go to meet with a prospective new client, you don’t say to yourself, ‘I’ve done this a hundred times, I can do it with my eyes closed.’ No, you prepare for each meeting like it’s the very first occasion.  After all, with this particular person, it is.  Which means you need to cater the conversation to this unique experience.

Likewise, we can’t walk into our Jewish experiences with our eyes closed.  Every Shabbos meal requires spiritual preparation to make it feel fresh and new.  Maybe it’s a new zemer (Shabbos table song) you’ve learned on YouTube.  More probably it’s a D’var Torah or conversation starter from the weekly parsha.  It only takes a few minutes to open up the Chumash and find something interesting to discuss.  But it’s those few minutes that will transform not only your Shabbos table, but the lives of your friends and family for generations to come.

If you’re a typical weekly-shul-attending Jewish adult, you probably consider yourself quite knowledgeable in Torah.  After all, you read Hebrew fluently and can follow (and maybe even lead) a service, and you received a decent foundation in Judaism at either day-school or cheder.  But then you open up the Talmud or join a daily Talmudic insights discussion group (such as DaF Yo.Me!), and you begin to realize how much we all have yet to learn.  Once you appreciate that, of course every day feels like new.  Here we were thinking we knew everything there was to know about Judaism, and lo and behold, we now have seven years’ worth of new Jewish encounters to look forward to!

The sheer breadth and depth of the Talmud guarantees that our Judaism will never go stale.  But it takes commitment.  Not merely to external learning, but to internalizing what you’ve learned so that it infuses your spirit and impacts your life.  May you forever find Torah as new and exciting as your bar or bat mitzvah day!

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