This Day: Derech Eretz and the Study of Torah
Our modern culture teaches us to “stop and smell the roses.” To relax, “take a load off”. We push ourselves too relentlessly, we are told. We need to take time and “de-stress”, as if all actions that 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 so that our lives have value and meaning. Our teachings are clear. Rather than put aside all tasks, there are two tasks for which we should feel an unrelenting urgency – to learn Torah and to repent. The Torah is clear about this urgency in the Sh’ma: “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 that “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”! Now! 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, 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 when we learn 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? How can we give such a horror meaning?
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 if any other 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 the “quantity” of knowledge, more than book knowledge and text absorption. Torah learning 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 and derech eretz displayed at the recent funeral of the great Gaon Rav Shmuel Wosner ZTL. 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 such a tragedy that was the opposite of the honor due to one who epitomized Matan Torah and Shavuos.
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 month, we ask for “a life in which there is no shame no humiliation.” In Shemone Esrei’s Birkat Al Hatzadikim we pray, “Put our lot with them forever and we will not be ashamed.”
In the Shacharis bracha, right before Shema we ask, “… and unify our hearts to love and fear Your name (v’lo nevosh l’olam) and may we not feel shame for all eternity”.
Chazal were wise to include a plea that we not be shamed in midst of our heartfelt pleas for Torah tools. Shavuos 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? Do I impart derech eretz while teaching Torah?
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 Tanhuma (Ki Tavo) sums it up: What is meant by “this day?” Had the Holy One, blessed be He, not ordained these precepts for Israel till now? Surely the year in which this verse was stated was the fortieth? Why does the Scripture therefore state: “this day?” This is what Moshe 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.Everyday, the excitement, enthusiasm, and vigor of being a committed and learned Jew must be renewed and reinforced. Each and every day, the Torah must be received anew, just as if it was received from Sinai each and 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 that 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 round 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 every day. If he can think this way, he will continually engage in repentance, each and every day.
He will know no shame.