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The Mitzvah essential for Jewish survival!

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil
May 26, 2017

Baron Horace Ginzburg was a resident of St. Petersburg in Russia and a person of significant influence there in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

It was a solemn Yom Kippur and the Baron was in the great synagogue whilst the bidding started for “Peticha” (the opening of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept) at Neila – the most precious time of that holy day.

Baron Falk was also in attendance and was excited to get the Mitzvah. He bid a whopping 2000 Roubles (roughly today worth £300,000) for the opportunity to open the ark.

The short silence in the synagogue was eagerly followed by a 25% increase in the bid by Baron Ginzburg – “2500 Roubles” – he shouted.

Within seconds he had won the bid.

As the commotion died down, Baron Ginzburg turned to his colleague on the right and said, “What’s Peticha?”

Bewildered his colleague gazed at the Baron and asked “Baron Ginzburg, you have just paid2500 Roubles for Peticha on Neila and you don’t know what Peticha is?

Why did you bid so much for it if you don’t know what it is?”

The Baron smiled answering his colleague, “I don’t know what Peticha is, but I sure do know that Baron Falk is a masterful business man. If he bid 2000 Roubles, I know it must be worth much more!”

The world is full of many great blessings, yet we find ourselves sometimes oblivious to their true value.

If you had to pick a mitzvah that you consider essential for the survival of Judaism, what would it be? Would you choose one of the Ten Commandments or ‘love your neighbour?’ How about a Jewish holiday or Shabbat? Such a choice is a subjective matter but there is no question in my mind which one I would choose: Talmud Torah, making time in one’s daily life for the study of Torah. If I could inspire people to do only one thing in their daily lives on a regular basis it would be to study Torah not as a leisurely activity but as a mitzvah and a daily discipline. The sages could not say enough about the importance of learning. We begin our day by acknowledging our responsibility ‘to occupy ourselves with Torah.’

Torah study is of more value than the offering of daily sacrifice in the Bet Hamikdash (Eruvin 63b). A single day devoted to the Torah outweighs 1,000 sacrifices (Tractate Shabbat 30a).

One cannot overstate the emphasis the sages placed on living a life of learning. Such learning does not even end in this world.

The image of Olam Haba, the World to Come, as a great Yeshiva where those who are worthy merit the right to sit at the table studying Torah, is a popular image. The story is told of one man who was given a glimpse of the World to Come. Just a bit disappointed, he asked. “Are these people in heaven?” His host said: “These people who are studying Torah are not in heaven; rather heaven is in them!”

So why is there so much emphasis on Talmud Torah? Perhaps it’s because learning Torah is the doorway to everything else in Jewish life. That is why the Talmud says, “The study of Torah is equal to all the other commandments.” (Shabbat 127a)

After the counting of the Bnei Yisrael and most of the tribe of Levi in Parshat Bamidbar, our Parasha continues with the counting of the sons of Gershon: “Take a census of the sons of Gershon also.”

Rabbi Avraham Saba z”l (Spain, 1440-1508) asks whythe Torah stresses the word “also”.

He explains that Gershon was the oldest son of Levi, and his descendants had a claim to be counted before the descendants of Gershon’s younger brother Kehat. Since the family of Kehat was already counted at the end of last week’s Parasha, our Parasha says, “Take a census of the sons of Gershon also.”

And why were the descendants of Kehat counted first? R’ Saba explains that the Torah honours Kehat for his Torah knowledge, just as we read in Divrei Hayamim I (4:9), “And Yaavetz was honoured more than his brothers.” As the Gemara explains, Yaavetz was one of the greatest Torah scholars of the generation following Moshe Rabbenu.

Similarly, Kehat’s family was honoured over the family of the firstborn Gershon because of the former’s association with the Torah.

On the verse (Mishlei 3:15), “It [the Torah] is more precious than peninim / pearls,” the Midrash comments: “More precious than a firstborn” (a play on “lifnim” / “earlier,” i.e. the firstborn, who is the early one). The family of Kehat carried the Ark which contained the luchot. Moreover, Kehat used to assemble crowds and teach them Torah. They were thus honoured with being counted before the firstborn Gershon.

The Tzror Hamor explains that Kehat’s name alludes to his assembling crowds, just as King Shlomo is called “Kohelet” because he also assembled large audiences; however, King Shlomo has an additional letter “lamed” (“Kohelet” vs. “Kehat”) because the Mishnah (Avot ch.6) states that a king has 30 special attributes, corresponding to the Gematria of “lamed” which is 30.

Our Torah is priceless and if the Torah put so much emphasis on the mitzvah of studying Torah, you can bet like Baron Ginsburg that it is worth a great deal.

The Rambam states (Talmud Torah Ch1 8-10):

“Every Jewish man is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished. Even if he is a poor man who derives his livelihood from charity and begs from door to door, even if he is a husband and a father of children, he must establish a fixed time for Torah study during the day and at night, as [Joshua 1:8] commands: “You shall think about it day and night.”

The greater Sages of Israel included wood choppers, water drawers, and blind men. Despite these difficulties, they were occupied with Torah study day and night and were included among those who transmitted the Torah’s teachings from [master] to [student in the chain stretching back to] Moses, our teacher.

Until when is a person obligated to study Torah? Until the day he dies, as (Deuteronomy 4:9) states: “Lest you remove it from your heart, all the days of your life.” Whenever a person is not involved with study, he forgets.”

A few days ago we commemorated the great event at Har Sinai where we were blessed with G-d’s most precious gift – the Torah. Today we read the longest Parasha in the Torah to reinforce the idea of Torah learning and we gain an insight as to how important Torah learning is for our continuity as a people.

Let us strengthen our Torah study, appreciate its sweetness and understand its true essential value.


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