“The Shofar of Revelation”
A young man, in his mid twenties, not sure what he wants to do with his life, (the kind of person who we say “is trying to find himself) decides to travel to Israel. He is on a spiritual mission. He wants to find G-d in the Holyland. He arrives in Israel, and after a few months of travel, he enrolls in a Yeshiva and begins his studies. Now, a typical day in a yeshiva consists of an hour and a half of prayer, what I would call direct contact with G-d, and 10 to 12 hours of Talmud study. The young man had come to Israel and the yeshiva to learn about G-d but that year the yeshiva was studying tractate Baba Kama. Baba Kama, for those of you who have not studied that particular tractate, is not the most spiritually exciting tractate. It deals with theft and violence. It spends a considerable amount of folios discussing what happens if my ox gores your cow and the legal differences between an ox that has gored three times and an ox that has gored fewer than three times. Suffice to say that this was not exactly what our young man was looking for.
After a number of months, the young man begins to get depressed; he cannot take it any longer. He approaches the Rebbe, his teacher, and says, “Rebbe, I came to yeshiva to find God and all I am doing is learning about property damages and theft and cows?
The rebbe looks at his student and gives him a 4 word answer:
Nefesh Hachaim chapter 4.
What is Nefesh Hachaim Chapter 4? Nefesh Hachaim is one of the most important books of the 19th century. The book was authored by the great Rabbi Chaim of Voloshin. Fortunately, one of the greatest scholars of our generation, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the life of Rav Chaim of Voloshin and I will rely heavily on Dr. Lamm’s research in this sermon.
Rabbi Chaim’s greatest contribution to Judaism was the following: He invented the modern yeshiva. The yeshiva of Voloshin which he founded became the model for all subsequent yeshivot. It is true that before the Voloshin Yeshiva individual Jewish young men found teachers and become scholars. But the 18th century was really a period of neglect of Torah study. Jews simply could not afford to study.
Rav Chaim’s yeshiva was probably the first to have a professional fundraiser on staff. His name was R. Yosef Krynky. In one letter penned by Rabbi Krynky to prospective donors illustrates the degree of neglect of Torah Study before the establishment of the Voloshin Yeshiva. Rabbi Krynkry writes that “before the Voloshin Yeshiva was established, even in synagogues of large towns, a complete set of the Talmud could not be found, for there was no need for it, since hardly anyone was engaged in the study of Torah.” We must take the letter with a grain of salt because it was after all a fundraising letter, but the fact the someone could say this is astounding. Think about the Beth Sholom community. Before Rosh Hashana I went around and counted that we have almost 10 sets of the Talmud! And I am sure that almost every family sitting here today has a set of Talmud at home. Yet in major cities in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, one complete set of Talmud could not be found!
Rav Chaim comes on the scene during this period of great Torah neglect and created a yeshiva, a Talmudic Academy par excellence with the greatest teachers and the brightest students from across Lithuania. He even procured funding so that the students could study without financial worries.
What did the students of this great yeshiva actually do all day? It is true that the young men came to get close to God. But they did not spend all day praying or saying to tehilim with great piety. They didn’t even spend much time perfecting their mitzvah observance. These young men spent almost every hour of every day and every night studying Talmud; studying laws of damages, tort law, laws of marriage, divorce, laws of 1 person trying to cheat another. Why? Why would Rav Chaim set up a yeshiva at great cost to himself and the Jewish community for 200 young men to study laws of damages for a legal system that to many, was no longer relevant?
This question is the subject of Nefesh Hachaim Chapter 4 and it was the topic of many discussions and debates in the Yeshiva. Reb Chaim taught his students that if you really want to find G-d, you shouldn’t look to prayer. You shouldn’t look to chesed and you shouldn’t even look to scrupulous observance of mitzvoth. If you really want to find God you need to study Torah.
Now it was undisputed that Torah study was of utmost importance. But why was Torah study so important?
And herein lies on the greatest controversies of Jewish History.
During Rav Chaim’s lifetime, a debate was raging that threatened to rip European Jewry apart. The Baal Shem Tov had recently revealed himself and his followers, the Chassidim, were debating the anti-chasidim (mitnagdim) with tremendous acrimony. One focus of the debate revolved around the purpose of Torah study.
In Hassidic thought, most notably in the writings of Elimelech of Lizhensk, the author of Noam Elimelech, The purpose of Torah study is Dvekut, clinging to God. The Chassidim would take the words of torah and meditate on them with tremendous piety and devotion and use the words of Torah to cling to God. For many chassidim, Torah study was not about comprehension and intellectual rigor. The goal is to use learning spiritually to cling to God.
It was this Chassidic, anti-intellectual approach that so angered Rav Chaim of Voloshin and became his motivation to author the 4th chapter of Nefesh Hachaim and offer another theory.
For Rav Chaim, studying Torah is not about spiritually clinging to God, but it is about intellectually comprehending the word of God. While the Chassidim use Torah as a means to get to God. Rav Chaim uses God to get to God’s Torah.
I do not want to get bogged down in this highly nuanced debate about Torah study between the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim. Some of us are more inspired by the spiritual approach of the Chassidim and others are more attracted to the intellectual approach of the Mitnagdim. I would like to make this conversation more concrete by turning to a text that we recite at least twice a day, the shema.
We say that the shema is the most important liturgical paragraph. We close our eyes in deep concentration when we say it. We say it the first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It is the first prayer that we learn as toddlers and it is the last prayer on our lips before we die. It could be called the Jewish People’s mission statement. But I have a difficult question that we need to ask ourselves on this Rosh Hashana morning. How many of us really take the shema seriously? How many of us really live by its mission.
Allow me to read one line from first paragraph of shema and I am going to use it to plug some of the learning opportunities that are coming this year. You can follow along with me on page 276 of the machzor:
ושננתם לבנך - “Teach them thoroughly to your children”
The cornerstone of Chinuch; of raising our children as Jews is teaching them Torah. Note what is not said. It does not say “send your children to day school so that teachers can teach your children.” It says you should teach them. It is true that many of us do not have the time, resources and knowledge to be the primary Jewish Educators for our children. But we have to remember that that ultimate responsibility is on us. ושננתם לבנך.
After sukkot, we are going to have a Sunday morning learning program for Parent – Children learning. We will provide the source material, we will be there to answer questions, but you will teach your children Torah.
ודברת בם - “Speak of them (speak the words of Torah),
Its not enough to teach your children. In order to teach you have to learn as well. You have become knowledgeable in order to impart knowledge. I have had some very frustrating conversations with Jewish adults, none of them of course from this synagogue. Some of these people are the smartest I know; doctors, lawyers and professors. So knowledgeable. But when it comes to Judaism, they are on the 6th or 8th grade level, whatever the last year of formal Jewish education. We need to continue learning. We need to be Jewish adults, spiritually and cognitively. Please take advantage of our new Wednesday Night Live adult ed program. We will have something for everyone; Talmud, Bible, Jewish thought, jewish art. Take learning seriously. Make the commitment to learn this year.
At this point, if I have done a good job, you are probably thinking, “ok I want to study Torah, I want to recommit, but what does Torah Study have to do with Rosh Hashana?
My answer is the following: In the entire 5 books of the Torah, the shofar is only sounded once, at Mount Sinai during the Revelation. The Shofar of Revelation, of Torah study. The final section of the Mussaf amidah which we are about to recite is called Shofarot. All of the Torah verses quoted are taken right from the Revelation, from the Giving the Torah. There are so many voices that we can hear in the shofar but one that we often ignore is the shofar of revelation. The shofar of Torah study. That Shofar calls out to us giving a voice to the Torah. It says, “please study me. I have been neglected. Take me seriously and it will enhance your life.”
I would like to conclude with a story. Reb Hershele Riminover was just 21 years old when he became the Rebbe. He was still a single man. One day, a woman in her 20s comes to see him. She says, “Rebbe, you have to help me. I am an orphan and I have not parents to find a match for me. Please help me find a shidduch.” The rebbe looks at the woman, and he studies her a little better and he says, “Let me ask you a question. Would you marry me?” The woman thinks the rebbe is making fun of her and she breaks down crying. She says, “Rebbe, I am so broken, please don’t make fun of me.” And the Rebbe says, “My question was serious. Are you from such and such town. The woman says, yes. And do you have 10 brothers and sisters. The woman says yes, but how do you know that. The rebbe says “and was your father’s name R’ Moshe? She says yes. So the rebbe asks her, do you remember a boy named Hershele. She says, “of course I remember. Hershele was the tailors son and my brothers were very wild and they would always rip their shabbos pants and we would send them to Hershele’s father. On Erev shabbos, Hershele was often come to deliver the pants. The rebbe said, I am Hershele and every time that I would go to your house I saw something so beautiful. Your mother, your father and the your 10 brothers and sisters would sit at the shabbos table and study of the parshah of the week together. I would leave your house and I would start crying because my father was a poor illiterate tailor who did not know how to learn and I so envied your family. And I would cry to God, “Please let me have a family like that. Bless me so that I can marry one of those girls.” And the rebbe looks at the orphan and he says to her, “And now, you have come. It is as if we are soulmates. Please marry me.” Of course the couple got married, they raised a beautiful family, and every shabhos they would sit as a family at the table and study Torah together.
This year, as we hear the shofar, let us recommit to Torah study. Rosh Hashana, which is also a day of memory (יום הזכרון) forces us to ask what kind of memories to do want our children to have of us. Lets create memories of family Torah study. Of parents who were always making time to go to classes and to study. Of parents who learned with each other. And most important, lets create memories of parents who made time to study with their children and grandchildren. Our success as jews depends upon it.
May we all be blessed with a year of learning, a year of health and year when we can see all of those important things in life become a reality. Shana Tova