One of the hallmarks of Judaism is the universal obligation of education. The obligation of studying and exploring Torah in depth is upon every Jew. While there will always be scholars and students, Torah is meant for every single person.
The importance of Torah study becomes very clear in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim — “laws.” It contains the biblical source for many of the Talmud’s civil laws. These are the first laws that G-d commands Moses to teach all the Jews after the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, which we read in last week’s portion. Even before we learn about the many mitzvos that are more ritualistic in nature, the Torah presents the “logical” mitzvot; statutes that human rationale naturally relates to and enjoys exploring.
For while the foundation of Judaism is faith in G-d — hence the grand revelation before all else — we are also required to make every effort to understand G-d’s laws, especially those mitzvos that are intrinsically rational, i.e. the prohibition against murder, the obligation to honor parents etc., or those that are presented along with an explanation — the celebration of Shabbat to recall the Creator and the creation, wearing tefillin to bind the mind and heart to G-d, etc. (In fact, Maimonides in Mishna Torah encourages us to try to comprehend whatever aspects we can of even the mitzvot that are intentionally suprarational, i.e. the details of the laws of kashrut, the rule of shatnez, etc.)
The importance of studying Torah in depth and understanding its logic is paramount to the purpose of the Revelation at Mount Sinai: the integration of G-d and His physical world.
If we are to follow the mitzvot without trying to understand them, they will remain external to our being. We may be acting as a Jew but we are not thinking like a Jew. In his commentary to the Mishna, Maimonides writes that if a mitzvah is simply logical, doing the mitzvah is not enough; one must come to an understanding and agreement intellectually and emotionally for the mitzvah to be complete. (Unlike when one fulfills a suprarational mitzvah but does not understand the reason for the mitzvah, where this is still considered a complete service of G-d.)
Last week, the editorial of The Jewish Chronicle wrote about the “potential” presented by Sefaria publishing the Talmud online with translation to allow the masses to access the study of Talmud. This week, the Torah encourages us to make good on our promise to G-d to understand and comprehend His Torah. You will also find that the timeless Torah has endless and fascinating insight to modern dilemmas. Currently, Chabad is offering a course on the Talmud’s perspective on contemporary issues. This week, we will be discussing “engineering ethics into driverless cars.” In the spirit of promoting Jewish study and intellectual pursuit in addition to observance and celebration, allow me to encourage you to join us at one of our four local locations offering these classes, to see for yourself how the Talmud can be accessible to all.
When the Jews were asked if they would accept the Torah, they responded “naaseh venishma, we will do and we will listen.” The commentaries write that the correct translation for the word nishma is to understand. (If you do before you listen, you may not be following the directions properly.) Once again, this emphasizes that while obedience comes first, it must be followed with an attempt to understand.
Let’s accept the challenge lovingly and energetically and dive into the wisdom of our priceless national treasure, the Holy Torah. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Yisroel Altein is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Squirrel Hill. This column is a service of Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.