The Value of Learning
Every day before we begin our prayers, we recite a brief statement by our Talmudic sages found in the tractate Shabbat, 127a: “These are the commands (activities) for which a person eats the fruits in this world but the bulk of the reward is in the World to Come: honor to parents, acts of loving kindness, early attendance at school morning and evening, welcoming quests into our home, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, attending to the dead, concentration in prayer and making peace with our fellow man; and study of Torah is ,כנגד “keneged,” all of them.”
Many questions are raised regarding this list of mitzvot, but I want to address the last statement, “and the study of Torah is “keneged” all of them. What is the meaning of this remark? The term “keneged” can be translated many ways depending on the context. Two translations are “accompany” and “outweigh.” This Talmudic statement, “the study of Torah is keneged all of them” is expressing two different but related values that learning plays in Judaism.
One value to learning in the system of Judaism is that no mitzvah can be fully accomplished or performed devoid of knowledge. A person must study and understand how to visit the sick, honor parents, etc. This backdrop of knowledge is true for every mitzvah in the Torah. What exactly constitutes the prohibition of meat and milk? What precisely comprises the structure of a sukkah? How does one fulfill the command “to return a lost object”? There is no way to intuit or feel our way through any mitzvah, even given the best intentions.
Performing a mitzvah out of knowledge is transformative. It changes the activity from something instinctual, emotional, or perfunctory into an intelligent and meaningful act. I have yet to find a person that does not want to behave intelligently in everything they do.
From a purely practical standpoint, 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 last week’s Torah portion, “See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse.” God’s blessing, as the Torah goes on to say, is bestowed upon us for following the command as directed. So, unless one studies each command to know precisely what, how, when, where, who and why, the performance is deficient and lacking. Simply put, knowledge is the bedrock that accompanies every mitzvah in Judaism.
However, there is a second, more important value to learning expressed here by our sages. It is the concept that learning per se, intrinsically, inherently, is the ultimate good for mankind. Included among our daily mitzvot is for every Jewish person “to be involved in the pursuit of knowledge.” Learning under this framework, rather than elevating the act, transforms the person in a profound way. It directs his or her energy to that which is truly and uniquely human, acts of thinking, reasoning, and discovery. When learning in this realm, the person becomes, “a pursuer of God’s wisdom.”
As he or she pursues knowledge, the person glimpses the vast array of astounding ideas behind the world around us, the vast universe and Torah. Such a person comes closer to God. As a direct result of learning in this framework, a greater love and appreciation for the Creator, the source behind these ideas, is instilled within learner. The student becomes naturally drawn to the activity of learning, facilitating the opportunity of seeing more of the Creator’s wisdom.
“The study of Torah,” then, refers to Torah, with a capital “T,” encompassing all of God’s wisdom. What is the proof for this assertion? Judaism has two unique blessings. One is recited when we see an eminent Torah scholar. But another blessing, “… Who has given from His wisdom to human beings,” is recited when we see a renown secular scholar, Jewish or non-Jewish. Thus, Judaism recognizes that our relationship to God is forged whether understanding the structure of a cell or the structure of a sukkah. The source of the wisdom behind both our physical and religious realms is God. Our great Torah scholars, past and present, were and are very knowledgeable in secular fields of study as well, some even experts.
In short, the conclusion of our sages, “the study of Torah outweighs all of them,” is their way of telling us to become life- long learners. Learning is the activity that we and we alone are uniquely designed to do. It is the hallmark of human endeavor and affords mankind the greatest blessing possible… closeness to God.
At Posnack Jewish Day School part of our mission is to assist in the development of our students so they choose to act out of knowledge. We also strive to engender in them as well the desire to be life-long learners. By combining these two values of learning, our students will be on the path to be the beneficiaries of the blessings promised to us in the Torah by God.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan