Though the sages tell us that the Torah will never be completely forgotten, they did, nevertheless, foresee a scenario of serious deterioration in Torah learning. Indeed, the long years of exile (galut) severed the Jew from any nationalistic development, and crippled his ability to observe the Torah properly. The original concepts of Torah could not be properly absorbed, as distortions infiltrated Torah learning, perverting the authentic Jewish idea beyond recognition. Foreign ideas were mixed together with holy Torah concepts, and when the smoke cleared, we were left clinging to no more than empty Jewish ritual. But the idea, which is in essence the soul of the Torah, – was unfortunately thrown by the wayside. We often discuss in this parsha sheet how the authentic Jewish idea is in exile. In essence, this is the “tikun” we have taken upon ourselves – to restore the pure and authentic Torah idea! And what time can be more appropriate than Shavuot, the time of “Matan Torah”, to raise this issue?
Tanach – the Key
This exile of the authentic Torah idea is expressed most distressingly in what has become an almost universal phenomenon: the abandonment of Tanach learning. The exile of our people has caused the Tanach, which is supposed to be the basis of our faith, to deteriorate into something less and less relevant to our everyday life.
The experiences our nation underwent in the Land of Israel in the days of the Tanach so drastically differed from our experiences in the exile, that it reached the point where we actually exiled the Tanach from the Torah halls!
But it is only the Tanach which provides us with a complete picture of what Judaism is all about. Only in Tanach do we grasp what it is like for the Jewish People to live in the Jewish land, and how a normal Jew is supposed to behave. Only in Tanach do we see how the entire nation is punished or rewarded as a single entity. All the concepts which top today’s national agenda are found in Tanach, which gives clear and unambiguous guidance. All we need to do is study it. He who is cut off from Tanach cannot possibly grasp what is the Jewish People, what is the Jewish state, and just might prefer living in Brooklyn, far away from the troubles of the Jewish nation, and further still from the redemption process.
In the Tanach, we are presented with the portrayal of the ideal Jewish leader. Behold Avraham Avinu, the father of our nation, who unassisted found his way to G-d: the paradigm of the man of loving-kindness, the paradigm of the man who made war for the sanctification of the Name of G-d, who subdued four kings.
Behold King David, the Sweet Singer of Israel, warrior and poet, who, while writing the Book of Psalms also slew the blaspheming Philistines and continued to fight, throughout his life, to enlarge the borders of Israel. We meet such heroic figures as Benayahu ben Yehoyada and Yoav, brilliant military leaders whom the Sages reveal as having been no less than heads of the Sanhedrin – the nation’s top religious leaders!
This is but a taste of the awesome richness and depth of authentic Jewish thought that is to be found in the Tanach. Nonetheless, while the Tanach is the world’s single most famous and influential Book, it has been banished from Yeshivot.
Tanach at the Age of Five
The teaching of our sages from Pirkay Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 5:21, is well known: “At the age of five, the study of Tanach (should commence), ten for the study of Mishnah…fifteen for the study of Talmud..” To most, this is a nice saying, but without any practical implications. Whoever takes the the words of our sages seriously knows that they meant every word they said. The Torah is a structured edifice, with the study of Tanach being its foundation. If one begins at the age of nine to study what is really appropriate for a fifteen year old, he will bypass the study of Tanach and be left like a building without a foundation. The Tanach is the basis for all Torah study, and without it, the whole structure is left flimsy and begins to crumble later on.
It is told that when Rabbi Akiva began the study of Torah at the age of forty, he went and sat amongst small children, who were just beginning to learn. There is no doubt that his mind was developed enough to dive straight into the study of Talmud, however, he waited. The reason being that without a thorough knowledge of Tanach and Mishnah, his jump into the study of Talmud would not have produced one of the greatest Torah minds of all time, who fought with an intense love of his nation in the war to sanctify G-d’s Name against the Romans. All this, from his understanding of
the authentic Jewish ideas found in the Tanach.
Torah Study – In Need of an Overhaul
When the study of Torah concentrates almost entirely around a few choice sections of Gemora (as is the case in most yeshivas), then not only is there a deficiency in the knowledge of Tanach, there is inadequacy in the knowledge of the Mishnah and Talmud itself. Such a situation is most unfortunate. One can split hairs over particular sections of Gemorah, and remain an ignoramous when it comes to the most fundamental and simple concepts of Judaism. Certainly there is no doubt that a Torah scholar must possess a deep and thorough understanding of Talmud. However, without the knowledge of Tanach, is not his learning left lifeless and without feeling? Is it not comparable to a three story building without a foundation?
It is not us who began this cry for change. On the contrary, Rabenu Bechayay, the Maharal of Prague and many other great Torah leaders throughout the generations have called for an overhaul in Torah learning. Also today, many yeshiva leaders are pained by this sad state, however, most think that their calls for change will be in vain. But the truth that there is a thirst and an awakening amongst the masses, especially the young, to straighten out the path of learning to the authentic way in which our sages laid out for us and received from Sinai. With the help of G-d, the authentic glory of Torah study will be restored.