Parashat Matot-Masei: The power of daily learning

The agenda for daily Jewish learning touches the core of what it means to be a Jew, as well as a human being. In the finite act of study, we attempt to understand the infinite.

 The Torah has always been a public document of the Jewish people (photo credit: RACHAEL CERROTTI/FLASH90)
The Torah has always been a public document of the Jewish people
(photo credit: RACHAEL CERROTTI/FLASH90)

In our double portion this week, Matot-Masei, we find the Israelites near the end of their 40-year journey, “in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan [river] near Jericho,” (Num 33:49) waiting to cross back into the Promised Land. 

The name of the second parasha, Masei, “journeys,” recounts in its opening, chapter 33, the 42 places they encamped along the way. (There is a tradition that some Torah scrolls have 42 lines in a column as a constant reminder of that.) 

In both parshiot, we are told of the request by the tribes of Reuben and Gad to remain and settle on the other side of the Jordan River in “the lands of Jazer and Gilead” because it “is cattle country and your servants have cattle… do not move us across the Jordan” (Num 32: 1; 4-5). 

In their appeal “to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community” (Num 32:2), the Gadites and Reubenites list specific places in Transjordan, “Atarot, Divon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nevo, and Beon” (Num 32:3). This list is unremarkable on its own but is noted in an interesting discussion in the Talmud:

“Rav Huna bar Yehuda said Rabbi Ami said: A person should always complete his (Torah) portions with the congregation” (Berachot 8a).

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

The Gemara, the rabbinic discussion, then explains that every week that particular week’s parasha/portion should be studied twice in the original Hebrew, as well as with a translation. 

Related to our verse/passuk from this week, “Atarot, Divon, etc.” (Num 32:3), we are told even that verse needs to be studied twice in the Hebrew, as well as in the translation, even though the names of the places are the same in both the Hebrew and the translation. The rabbis go on to say that one who follows this weekly practice will be rewarded in that their “days and years will be extended” (Berachot 8a).

The 19th-century Iraqi commentator Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad understands extended “days” in this case refers to the quality of one’s life, while “years” speaks about longevity.

For our purposes, we note the emphasis and importance placed on the study of Torah every week in the home as preparation for hearing the Torah being read in synagogue on Shabbat. The Torah, our holy text, has always been a public document of the Jewish people.

While the Torah is understood to be from heaven, “It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it” (Deut 30: 12-14).

The importance of regular study of Torah in Judaism

IN FACT, the study of Torah is one of the pillars of Judaism. Not only are we supposed to study the full parasha each week multiple times, but embedded within the siddur, the Jewish prayerbook, we find daily study of Torah as part of the daily liturgy.

Rav Soloveitchik comments on the blessing we find in the siddur for the study of Torah: “Barukh atah adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu la’asok b’dibrei torah/How full of blessing you are, Eternal One, our God, majesty of the universe, who has consecrated us with Your commands, and commanded us to occupy ourselves with the study of Torah.” 

He notes that the word “to occupy/la’asok” is related to the word esek, meaning “business.” That is to say, the words of our Torah study should not be limited to the walls of our homes or the synagogue but should influence and guide us throughout the day.

While there is a vigorous culture of daily study in a large segment of Orthodox Jewish communities, that unfortunately and tragically, cannot be said of most non-Orthodox Jewish communities and individuals. This reality is connected to the trend, as Susie Allen points out, quoting Yale’s Edieal J. Pinker, “50 years from now, the US Jewish community is going to look totally different than you think of it today,” with Orthodox Judaism on the ascent.

This is due to many factors. One is the strength of daily learning within the Orthodox community, which both increases knowledge and reinforces Jewish identity. There are other causes as well when it comes to the diminution of the non-Orthodox Jewish communities: 

  1. the transference of Jewish life out of the home and into the synagogue (the synagogue was supposed to augment Jewish home life; not replace it); 
  2. the non-observance of Shabbat – I do not mean a halachic Shabbat necessarily, but a day that is minimally and consciously set aside for the soul to renew itself; 
  3. the disregard of keeping kosher  – it is a reminder throughout the day of one’s identity; as eating a vegan and vegetarian diet clearly is better for our planet, that becomes another way of “keeping kosher.” 

There are other influences as well, but let’s return to the Jewish value of daily study.

THERE WAS a time when if one did not understand Hebrew or Yiddish, Jewish learning was limited. That is no longer the case. There are hundreds and hundreds of very accessible books on all aspects of Judaism, not to mention Jewish novels in English. This says nothing of Jewish websites and Jewish podcasts across the Jewish spectrum. Today, it is a matter of choice. 

In the Orthodox world, by being “commanded” through the mitzvah system, an imperative is established to do mitzvot, including study. In the non-Orthodox Jewish world, we need to strengthen the sense of obligation (at the core what being commanded is about) if we want our non-Orthodox versions of Judaism to flourish going forward.

The goal of daily Jewish learning (which can range from minutes to hours) that I present here is not to make everyone a halachic Jew or even religious, for that matter. 

Daily learning can also be a practice for secular Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. The goal is to be an informed and more learned Jew. There is joy and wonder through that endeavor. Torah is understood as not only the Five Books of Moses and the commentaries on its words, but all Jewish learning – the Mishna, the Talmud, Jewish philosophers, the paintings of Chagall, and the songs of Leonard Cohen.

Our great existential motivation and challenge is to try to understand, make sense of, and find meaning and purpose in the world and in our lives. That is to say, the agenda for daily Jewish learning touches the core of what it means to be a Jew, as well as a human being. 

In the finite act of study, we attempt to understand the infinite. At the same time, we enter a Jewish conversation that began with our biblical ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, and carries on to this moment. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, offers insight into this dynamic: “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.” 

We read in the Book of Proverbs (3:18) that the Torah “is a tree of life to those who grasp her/Etz chaim hee l’machazikim bah.” It is a rich metaphor with many messages. One is this: Trees need water to live and survive; when it comes to Torah, she is only watered by our encounter with her – our thoughts, our questions, our insights of her, even our disagreements with her. 

And we, the Jewish people, are strengthened in our shared journey by that encounter; and as individuals, our lives are enriched and enlivened. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and Bennington College.