Entering the high-ceiling, table-lined beit midrash (study hall) at 4:37 AM, Jason was simultaneously overwhelmed by the thick smell of coffee and the roar of hundreds of people learning Torah at the top of their lungs.
Entering the high-ceiling, table-lined beit midrash (study hall) at 4:37 AM, Jason was simultaneously overwhelmed by the thick smell of coffee and the roar of hundreds of people learning Torah at the top of their lungs. The room was simply pulsating with activity. He shuffled through the maze of tie-clad individuals, placed a thick, well worn Talmudic text next to his third cup of Maxwell House, and reached over to scoot his seat out from under the table.
As his hand grabbed the back of the white plastic chair he remembered the rule of the night - sitting meant sleeping. He returned the chair and moved toward the left in the direction of a wooden lectern. He and 200 others had been learning intently in the beit midrash since 9:00 the previous evening - more than seven hours straight - and they still had two hours until sunrise. Exhausted as he was, Jason felt determined to immerse himself in that Talmudic text until dawn. Caffeine would provide an artificial boost of energy (and blood pressure), but ultimately, Jason realized, his desire to learn, his sheer perseverance, would bring the long night to a successful close.
Like Jason, tens of thousands of Jews all over the world will spend the entire first night of Shavuot studying Torah. The all night learning experience of Shavuot really serves as a model for the entire year: Hashem commands, "This book of the Torah is not to leave your mouth; you shall contemplate it day and night" (Joshua 1:8). This translates into one of the most fully encompassing mitzvot. A Jew must designate time every day to the study of the Torah - ideally, lots of time - and, regardless of the number of hours, the Torah must remain the ultimate goal of a Jew. Hashem demands our utmost dedication of time and energy to the pursuit of truth through the Torah because the more effort we infuse into studying the Torah, the more it becomes a part of us and the more it strengthens our relationship with Hashem.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers 2:17) Rabbi Yossi galvanizes us, saying, "Prepare yourself to learn Torah, for it is not [effortlessly attainable] for you [like] an inheritance." The harder we work to improve our character and the more diligently we pursue the depths of Torah knowledge, the more Hashem rewards our efforts in this world and in the next.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the greatest Torah scholars and leaders in Lithuania at the beginning of the 19th century, emphasizes this concept by citing two sources that seem to contradict it. In the course of blessing the Jewish people before his death, Moses describes the Torah as being "the eternal heritage for the congregation of Israel" (Deuteronomy 33:4). The Hebrew word "morasha" used to mean heritage, also connotes inheritance, something that comes automatically and without effort. This would suggest that there is a guarantee of automatic success in Torah study and growth. Similarly, the Talmud records that for any family with three generations of Torah scholars, Hashem guarantees that the chain of Torah scholarship will continue in future generations, as the Talmud homoletically summarizes, "The Torah always returns to its familiar place of lodging." This family has welcomed the Torah for three generations, so, analogously, the Torah becomes a loyal return customer. However, while this may sound nice, how is it consistent with the passage in Pirkei Avot which states that Torah knowledge can be attained only through diligent pursuit?
Rabbi Chaim answers that the passage in Pirkei Avot was carefully crafted to dispel the false notion that the Torah can be attained effortlessly. We must more precisely translate the verse: Hashem does promise that the Torah is the inheritance of the Jewish people, the "congregation of Israel", and will always exist amongst them as a living, dynamic entity. But each individual must prove himself worthy of its acquisition.
Likewise, we must follow the analogy drawn by the Talmud to its logical conclusion: The Torah will return as a faithful guest to its familiar place of lodging with the family of Torah scholars - but the manager of any hotel knows that if paint is peeling from the walls and the rooms smell moldy and uninviting, customers will lose their loyalty very quickly. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to demonstrate that he deserves to continue the tradition of scholarship and piety established by his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Only then can his family history come into play.
Growth in Torah is the most meaningful and longest lasting accomplishment that an individual can achieve, and the more effort we put into it, the more we receive in return. Indeed, on Shavuot and every night, for that matter, it is our obligation and privilege to dedicate ourselves to personal development through Hashem's Torah.
Yosef Rodbell, a third-generation Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a rising senior at Yeshiva University in New York.
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