Haftarah Simchat Torah
September 28, 2002 in Israel
September 29, 2002 in the Dia
The final words of the Torah reading record the last days of the life of Moses. The haftarah begins where the Torah ends with Joshua taking upon himself the mantle of leadership. Joshua, Moses’ chief disciple, represents the continuity of leadership which will inevitably be faced with new trials to confront. Part of God’s message of initiation to Joshua is stated in the following words: “Let not this Book of Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful” (Joshua 1:8)
In the Talmud (Menachot 99b), there is a debate over the intended meaning of this statement. Did God mean for it to be a commandment (mitzvah) or a blessing (bracha)? The majority of the sages see it as a mitzvah requiring each Jew to study Torah and debate over the extent of its application. What are the minimum requirements for each Jew? Rabbi Ammi argues that each of us must study at least a chapter of Torah every morning and every evening. Rabbi Yochanan asserts that at minimum we must recite the Shema every morning and evening. Rabbi Yochanan, qualifies this statement and notes that it is forbidden to make this minimum known to the “amme haaretz – the common folk”, lest they intentionally take this as all that is required of them and not aspire to anything more. Raba disagrees with Rabbi Yochanan and insists that the common folk should be made aware of this assessment since if reciting the Shema will bring “success”, they might be inspired to study even more. Ben Damma the son of Rabbi Ishmael’s sister felt that the discussion of minimum standards was inappropriate. When asked whether it was appropriate for someone to study Greek wisdom, he answered using the above verse, that a person could only study Greek wisdom if they could find an hour that was neither day or night since these hours were reserved for Torah study. All of these opinions stand in contrast with Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani who holds that this verse is not a commandment but a blessing since the Torah is the most precious thing that has been given to us.
What is the impetus for this debate? The answer to this question is insightfully given by Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, the 14th century French commentator and philosopher, who maintained that there were two reasons for studying Torah. He asserted that a person studies the legal sections of the Torah in order to act properly. Study perfects a person’s deeds. In a similar fashion, the study of the non-legal sections of the Torah perfects the human aspect of a person. Is it any wonder then that God would command Joshua or any of us to pursue the study of Torah? Could there be any greater blessing that God could give us?
For an important discussion of these ideas within the context of the Conservative Movement, see \”A Conservative Compact of Jewish Committment\” , by Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, USCJ executive vice president.