Back to School: The Value of Learning
Each morning before we begin our prayers, we recite the well-known Mishna found in the tractate Shabbat, 127a. This famous Mishna, “These are the precepts…” lists many mitzvot and the extent of the reward for their accomplishment. Among them are honor to parents, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, attending to the dead, and other acts of kindness. However the Mishna concludes with, “… and the study of Torah is equivalent to all of them.” The inclusion of this last mitzvah seems out of place with those listed previously. What did the Sages intend in concluding the Mishna in this way?
In my opinion the Mishna is expressing two different but related features learning plays in Judaism. One idea is that in the system of Judaism no mitzvah can be accomplished fully, on the highest level, without knowledge. A person must learn how to properly visit the sick or to honor parents, where to affix a mezuzah or what exactly the prohibition of meat and milk is. There is no way to intuit or just feel your way through any mitzvah even given the best intentions. Performing a mitzvah out of knowledge is transformative. It changes the activity from something instinctual or perfunctory into an intelligent meaningful act. I have yet to find a person that doesn’t want to behave in an intelligent way.
From a purely practical stand point, if God commanded us, we must fully understand His command to ensure our proper compliance. After all God tells us in the opening sentence of this week’s Torah portion, “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.” Obviously, God’s blessing is bestowed for following the command as directed. So unless one studies each command to know precisely what, how, when, where, who and why, the performer is deficient and in turn the performance will necessarily be lacking. Simply put, knowledge is the bedrock of every mitzvah in Judaism.
Yet a second aspect to learning is contained in this statement by our Sages. It is the concept that learning per se, intrinsically, is the ultimate good for mankind. Included among the 613 commandments or daily activities for every Jewish person is “to be involved with the pursuit of knowledge.” This activity, the very act of learning, itself changes and improves the person. It directs a person’s energy to that which is truly and uniquely human, the act of reasoning.
As knowledge is acquired, be it in the sciences, the humanities or Torah law, the person comes closer, and approaches the reality of the universe created by God. A greater appreciation for God, the source of these ideas, is brought about by learning. Through the mitzvah of learning, the student is tapping directly into the wisdom of God displayed in all His creations. This relationship to God is forged whether understanding the structure of a cell or how the mitzvah of Shofar is accomplished. The source of both our physical and spiritual realms is God. In short, this conclusion by our Sages, to become a life- long learner, is the hallmark of human endeavor. It is the single mitzvah that affords man the greatest blessing possible, closeness to God.
In this weekly dvar Torah I want to acknowledge my debt of gratitude to Joel and Marcia Hochberg and as well all of the other benefactors of our new, state of the art, Hochberg Middle School and Culinary Institute. Their support and generosity of the Posnack Jewish Day School makes it possible for me, my colleagues and our students to participate in this most rewarding of mitzvot.
Here at the Posnack Jewish Day School part of our mission is to develop our students so they act from knowledge. In consequence of this process, we seek to engender in them the desire to be life-long learners. In this way all of our students will become full beneficiaries of all the blessings promised to us by God.
Let me extend my personal invitation to the readers of this weekly column to join us on Monday, August 21 at 7 pm in the RAM Gym as we dedicate our new Marcia and Joel Hochberg Middle School and K-12 Dining Hall.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan