The Strategy of a Learning Nation
Shavuot – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
The Festival of Shavuot is "The Time of the Giving of our Torah." The Revelation at Mount Sinai was a formative event where the Torah was given, with all of its 613 mitzvot, to all of Am Israel, as one entity and not as individuals. "'And Israel camped' (in the singular) – as one man with one heart." (Rashi on Shemot 19:2)
The rejoicing over the giving of the Torah is not only for the past but also for the present and the future. The daily Torah study is a continuation of the revelation. "And Rabbi Yehuda opened with (regard to) the honor of Torah and said: 'Take heed and listen Israel! Today you have become a nation…' (Devarim 27:9) But was the Torah given to Israel on that day (that this was said)? Wasn't that day at the end of the fortieth year? This comes to tell us that the Torah is as beloved by those who learn it every day as it was on the day it was given on Mount Sinai." (Brachot 63b) The Torah scholar considers himself as if he received the Torah at Sinai: "And it renews perpetually, and it never ceases from Israel… That a man must see himself as if he is receiving Torah at Mount Sinai (Pesikta Zutra, VaEtchanan) "As all of this glory renews itself for Israel every day, and every moment." (Da'at Tevunot p.7, 153)
Learning Torah is a central mitzvah: "This commands us to teach the wisdom of the Torah and to learn it" (in Rav Kapach's translation: "to teach Torah and to learn it") and this is called "Talmud Torah…" And the enthusiasm and diligence for this mitzvah has become widespread…" (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, positive command 11) The value of "learning Torah "lishmah" (for its own sake) is one of the fundamental values of the Torah and Jewish existence over all the generations. Torah learning "lishmah" as an end to itself, and not as a means to a different end, is unique to the study of Torah and doesn't exist in any other field of learning!
The rejoicing of Matan Torah is the joy of all of Am Israel, since "Every man of Israel is obligated to learn Torah!... whether he is a young man or very old and his strength has weakened… he must appoint himself time to study Torah at day and at night, as it says: 'and you will study it diligently day and night.'" (Rambam, Talmud Torah ch.1, halacha 1)
Sefer HaKuzari describes the Jewish pyramid of values: Torat Israel, Am Israel and Eretz Israel. The Torah is at the top of the pyramid! The Torah is above everything and is the foundation for everything and is weighed as much as all of the mitzvot of the Torah: "There is not one mitzvah which is weighed as much as Talmud Torah, but Talmud Torah is weighed as much as all the mitzvot together." (Rambam, Talmud Torah, ch.3 halacha 3) And this determines our ethical, personal and national order of priorities!
The mitzvah of Talmud Torah transformed Am Israel into a "learning nation" which was exceptional on the landscape of ancient nations, where most of the people were illiterate. Even then Am Israel considered learning a strategic goal, made a point of teaching the boys and established the first schools, and also formulated statutes for mandatory education. (Babba Bathra 21b) (There are those who attribute the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes received by Jews to this.)
The rejoicing of Shavuot is over the renewal of the luminescence of Matan Torah: "And the root of all of them is the order which the lofty wisdom has prescribed, whereas every enhancement that was added and (every) great light that was lit at any certain time – when that period of time will return, it will radiate light similar to the original light, and the outgrowth of that enhancement will be renewed in him who has received it. And according to this, we were commanded on the holiday everything which we were commanded… and in this way, (on) the Festival of Shavuot to Matan Torah." (Derech Hashem part 4, ch.7,6)
Nevertheless, in what way is Shavuot different from all other days?
On Shavuot the rejoicing is over Matan Torah as a nation - as one unit and not as individuals, similar to the Revelation at Sinai which was to Klal Israel. And over the generations, the Torah study of Klal Israel retains a special level, "Talmud Torah of the masses" – the transmission of the Torah to the next generation, which is at a higher level than the Torah study of individuals, and more grave than the service of the sacrifices (Megillah 3b), and is worth endangering oneself for: "However one must sacrifice himself for Talmud Torah of the masses and endanger himself for this." (Meshech Chochmah, Shemot 27:11)
Like Rabbi Akiva, who in spite of the decrees against teaching Torah, he endangered himself, "gathered masses in public" and was captured and died for this on Kiddush HaShem. (Brachot 61b)
The main purpose of the Beit Midrash and the yeshiva world is to be the place for the ideal learning, "Torah Lishmah" around the clock, and to be the center for the Klal-Israeli learning, where the Torah is transmitted to the next generations, as it was in the Revelation at Sinai. For this reason, the Beit Midrash has the highest level of moral and spiritual value. (Rambam, Tefillah 11:14)
Of course, the Torah study of every Yeshiva student is a serious personal challenge as well as a great mitzvah. Nevertheless the students are emissaries of the nation and are supposed to learn "Torah Lishmah" – for the sake of Knesset Israel. (Rav Kook, Orot HaTorah 2)