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AGAINST THE TIDE

by Daniel Lasar    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Rabbi Yitzchak relates that if someone says he has toiled in the study of Torah but has not succeeded, we do not believe him. If someone says he has not toiled in Torah but has succeeded, we also do not believe him. However, if he says he has toiled in Torah and has succeeded, we believe him. (Talmud Tractate Megillah 6b).

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Rabbi Yitzchak relates that if someone says he has toiled in the study of Torah but has not succeeded, we do not believe him. If someone says he has not toiled in Torah but has succeeded, we also do not believe him. However, if he says he has toiled in Torah and has succeeded, we believe him. (Talmud Tractate Megillah 6b).

The relationship between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot provides an important background concerning Jewish spiritual growth. A central theme of Passover, the festival of our liberation from Egypt, is the requirement that we rid our homes of all chametz (leavened products). In its place, we eat matzah. Both chametz and matzah are made from the same ingredients, so what is the difference between them? The answer is that one represents passivity and the other represents activity. Flour and water left unattended naturally turn into chametz. Matzah, on the other hand, only results through intervention, as the baker must astutely monitor time (the entire baking process must be completed in less than 18 minutes) and beat down the dough to prevent it from rising. The natural course of events results in chametz, but vigilant interference produces matzah. At this level, we understand from Passover that hishtadlut (effort) must be made to effect spiritual development, where an otherwise inactive posture would fail to yield progress.

This may be likened to the spawning of a salmon. This fish, in order to perpetuate its kind and hence effectuate its purpose in life, must make an annual trek upstream in order to reproduce. It must engage in an arduous journey, seemingly against all odds, but nonetheless the salmon always seems to somehow make it. If the salmon did not take upon itself this monumental task and opted to "go with the flow", its species would cease to exist. Instead, this amazing creature battles against the tide until it reaches its destination - its purpose.

While on the subject of fish, the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 61b) discusses a famous insight put forth by Rabbi Akiva. The Romans had decreed that anyone caught learning Torah would be put to death. Nonetheless, Rabbi Akiva continued to study and teach Torah. When asked how he could endanger his life this way, he answered with a parable. A fox was walking along the river bank and noticed fish darting amidst the water in order to evade the fisherman's nets. The fox slyly suggested to the fish that they come join the fox on land, where they would be safe from capture. The fish replied that in the water they at least had a chance to survive, despite the dangers inherent in such an existence; but they would surely die were they to leave the waters and join the fox. In a similar vein, Rabbi Akiva indicated that a Jew without Torah is like a fish out of water. Without Torah, the Jew cannot survive. Though it may not be easy and may require much effort, a Jew must remain in the waters of Torah to perpetuate Judaism.

This idea of an active attitude towards spiritual growth is reflected in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar. The Torah states, regarding the census of the Jewish people, that the Levites would be counted from the young age of one month. The other tribes, however, were only counted from the age of twenty years. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great Torah leader of the past generation, explains that because we are not sure that the child will develop into a Torah-observant Jew, we do not begin counting him until age twenty, when maturity has been reached and behaviors established. On the other hand, the Levite (whose tribe had proven itself by not sinning in the incident of the golden calf) was designated to serve in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Hence we can assume that even though just a baby, he will be well educated by his family, who have a presumption of commitment to Judaism, and grow up adhering to the Torah.

Thus, as parents, we cannot sit back and expect a religiously-identifying Jew to simply emerge. Rather, we must be actively involved in nurturing our child's spiritual awareness and growth. We must maintain constant attentiveness, seize the initiative, grab the steering wheel. Today, the substitute for important family discussion has unfortunately become a collective stare at the television. Video games are the babysitters of the 90's. Do we want our kids to turn out to be chametz or matzah?! Do we want our child to marry someone Jewish? Then teach him what it means to be a Jew: Light Shabbat candles, recite kiddush, put on tefillin, affix a mezuzah to your doorposts, pray to Hashem, set aside time for Torah study - and let your child see that you joyously do these things. Lead by example, for actions speak louder than words.

It is said that while in Egypt, the Children of Israel sunk into a morass of assimilationist influences. By "going with the flow", they had become inundated with Egyptian culture, causing them to drop to the 49th and next to last level of impurity. When they left Egypt, they were not yet able to accept the Torah; rather, they underwent a 49-day period of purging themselves of their foreign indoctrination, culminating with the giving of the Torah 3,309 years ago. During this time between Passover and Shavuot, we have been counting the omer, utilizing these 49 days to make ever-increasing spiritual progress. So too must we defeat the urge to sit back and follow the ebb and flow of popular culture. Instead, we must swim against the tide of false philosophy, keeping in mind the words of the great Talmudic sage, Ben Hei Hei: "The reward is in proportion to the exertion" (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:26).

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Daniel Lasar, a graduate of Emory Law School, is studying for the Bar in Atlanta.

You are invited to read more Parshat Bamidbar articles.

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