The study of our sacred traditions is central to Jewish life. From the earliest times in our history as a nation, Joshua was instructed to be engaged day and night in Torah study (Joshua 1:8). It comes as no surprise that the central Shema prayer includes the injunction to learn and teach Torah (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
As with so many Jewish deeds, the study of Torah should be a conscious enterprise, where students of Torah are aware that they are not merely garnering knowledge from books. Though Torah study has a commonality with academic pursuits, it strives for more - when delving into the texts of our heritage we hope to forge lasting connections with our traditions and infuse our existence with meaning and purpose.
With this insight we can appreciate why Torah study should be undertaken only once we have focused our thoughts by reciting a blessing. In this vein, the Talmud asks (B. Berachot 11b): What is the blessing that should be recited before the study of Torah?
The first response offered is a blessing that concludes: "Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to be engrossed with the words of Torah." Though this rendition parallels other benedictions recited before fulfilling mitzvot (commandments), it concludes with an insightful phrase that reflects how occupied with Torah we should be - it is insufficient to leisurely peruse Torah while dozing in a comfortable armchair. This blessing signals the lofty goal of delving into the sacred texts of our tradition, personally involving ourselves in their every turn of phrase.
The Talmud continues reporting that another sage would conclude the above blessing with the words: "Now sweeten, Lord, our God, the words of Your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of Your nation, the House of Israel. And may we be - we, and our descendants, and the descendants of Your nation, the House of Israel, all of us - amongst those who know Your name and who engross themselves with your Torah."
In this blessing we have a unique request. Before performing no other mitzva do we express the hope that future generations will be doing as we are about to do. Continuity is a concern that draws attention from Jewish leadership across the board. Communal resources are often channeled to bolster the chances of our children continuing in our path. Yet only with regard to the study of Torah do our sages mandate a prayer for continuity.
This blessing concludes with the enchanting words: "Blessed are you, God, who teaches Torah to His nation, Israel." Is God really the teacher of Torah today? Perhaps it would be more appropriate to thank God for providing talented educators who teach Torah?
We have here an interesting paradigm. Those whom we know as teachers are not the real educators; they are transmitters, and more importantly, facilitators. The true educator is God, who speaks through the voice of Torah.
To be sure, it is challenging to hear this voice, and often it is challenging for teachers to let this voice be heard. Torah teachers, however, do not aim to teach their version of Torah; they hope to faithfully convey God's message.
Clearly this is an impossible task, for everything in this world is tainted by subjectivity. Yet the challenge remains for the human teacher to be an objective mouthpiece for the Divine teacher. Thus, when we walk into a Torah lecture - as a student or as a teacher - we hope to encounter that still, silent voice of the Divine Torah teacher who educates His people.
The talmudic passage continues citing another version of the blessing: "Who chose us from amongst all the nations, and gave us His Torah." Here, too, we see that the Torah we study is not the earthly teacher's Torah, but the Torah of the Almighty. It is this gift of Torah that delineates the contours of our distinct mission in this world.
The Talmud continues stating that this benediction is "the best of the blessings," but does not elaborate on what gives this blessing its preferred status.
One commentator proposes that this blessing praises God while referring to the Torah and the Jewish People. This star-studded line-up - God, Torah and Jewish People - gives the blessing its distinction (Rashi, 11th century, France).
Perhaps we could suggest that the eminence of this blessing is connected with the captivating words that conclude the benediction: "Blessed are You, God, who gives the Torah." The present tense usage - "gives" - cries out: Was not the Torah given long ago at Sinai? One commentator points out that Torah continues to be given, as God grants fresh understandings when we delve into our sacred texts (Taz, 17th century, Poland). Once again we have the sense that God continues to actively teach Torah.
Indeed, the Talmud tells us that there is no beit midrash (study hall) that does not have a new approach to our tradition (T. Sota 7:9 and parallels). In fact, one version of this statement declares that every beit midrash has a daily innovative insight (Y. Sota 18d).
Faced with these different proposals for the appropriate blessing before the study of Torah, the passage concludes: "Therefore, you are to recite them all."
This is an appealing, normative ruling that is paralleled elsewhere in the Talmud (B. Sota 40a). The sages discuss the appropriate congregational response to the leader's modim (giving thanks) prayer in the repetition of the silent Amida.
Five suggestions are proffered, whereby the passage concludes with the ruling: "Therefore, we are to recite them all." Indeed, normative practice in all communities is to respond with a compilation of suggested responses, albeit with minor differences from the language presented in the Talmud. Likewise, all the proposed blessings upon the Torah are recited daily, notwithstanding minor changes.
Thus, we pray for all the elements included in the unique blessings recited before we embark on the conscious pursuit of Torah study. We strive to be absorbed in sweet Torah study that will be continued by our children, learning from the Divine teacher who continues to grant us innovative insights into our tradition, and all this while we endeavor to fulfill our mission in this world.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.