by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Simchas Torah -- "Rejoicing in the Torah." We take this opportunity to
celebrate Torah -- not even the fact that G-d _gave_ us the Torah, which we
celebrate on Shavuos, but the Torah itself!
Torah addresses every one of us; a child age seven and grandfather age
seventy can both learn new things from its words. One need only look at the
tremendous amount of Jewish literature written over the past thousand
years to realize that it addresses Jews in vastly different communities
and situations, in every era. Through Torah, we possess a common foundation,
which we share with Jews of different locales and even different generations.
A recent article in the Washington Post looked wistfully at the declining
market share of "ER", a popular television drama which apparently was the
leading series for a few years. Besides the fact that this one show's
audience is declining, and the show might be canceled before too long, the
writer believes it unlikely that another TV show will ever achieve a similar
level of popularity, where a truly significant portion of Americans are all
watching the same TV show -- as they once did with "I Love Lucy," "The
Brady Bunch", and "Seinfeld." Given the number of channels Americans now
have on cable, with "Dish Network" advertising literally _hundreds_ of
channels with which to numb our brains, a unique era in U.S. history is
coming to an end. No longer will Americans approach the water cooler the
following morning with one show they can all discuss, something which
strangers can talk about in diners across America.
Think about what this writer is saying. Besides the latest sordid tales
from the White House, what common vocabulary do Americans share? Says the
Washington Post: TV programs! And if another TV show will never be as
popular, then Americans will lose a common bond.
Our common bond, as Jews, could not be more opposite to a mind-deadening,
ephemeral evening as a couch potato, which loses all impact as soon as the
season ends. We connect ourselves through intellectually demanding study,
which speaks to us today as it spoke to Jews thousands of years ago. "Ma
Tov Chelkeinu, u'ma Naim Goraleinu, u'ma Yaffa Yerushaseinu" -- "How good
is our portion, how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance!"
Studying anything else is a means to an end -- meaning, the goal is to
possess knowledge of a subject, and studying the literature is the method
by which you reach that goal. Torah study, by contrast, is itself the goal.
When a person finishes a significant portion of Torah literature -- study
of a book in Tanach, a Seder (section) of the Mishnah, a tractate of
Talmud, etc. -- then it is customary to celebrate with a Siyum, a meal in
honor of the completion. The traditional reading said then includes the
following words: "we labor, and they labor; we labor and receive reward,
they labor and do not receive reward." What does this mean? We know that
people are paid and rewarded for all sorts of labor!
Recently, NASA lost a $129 million Mars orbiter when, upon arrival, it
burned in the Martian atmosphere rather than going into orbit. After
carefully studying what went wrong, they finally realized that the
contractor had told them to exert a certain amount of thrust using English
measurements, which NASA then implemented as if they had been given the
numbers in metric units. With the wrong amount of thrust, the orbiter
dropped too far into the atmosphere, and burned. A simple math error, and
years of work literally went up in smoke.
This is the meaning of "we labor and receive reward, they labor and do not
receive reward." In other things, you have to complete the job to get the
reward. But because Torah study is an end in itself, there is no such
thing as "wasted effort." All effort is Torah study!
When we have this attitude, making a little more effort seems easier -- and
little efforts can go a very long way. So let's celebrate what we have, and
try to acquire more for ourselves in the coming year!