Bamidbar: Torah Study Not Required?

Surprisingly, the Torah does not explicitly command us to study Torah! 

The King of Israel was required to write for himself two copies and read one his entire life. (Deut. 17:19).  Moses decreed that a copy be placed aside the Ark of the Covenant as a “witness” against the people (Deut. 31:24-26).  It was to be read in the presence of the entire community every seven years during Sukkot (Deut. 31:10-13).  But we were not otherwise commanded to study it. 

Torah study is, of course, a fundamental Jewish value, oft repeated by our rabbinical sages, including Akiva, Hillel, and Maimonides.  We even recite as part of the morning service,  “… the study of Torah is equal to them all.” (Talmud, Shabbat 127a).   Indeed, the “People of the Book” have read Torah publicly as part of worship services for at least 2,000 years (Josephus), and it was likely studied in synagogues even before they became houses of prayer.  (Cohen, The Observant Life, p. 82). Torah study has preserved the Jewish people.   

Nevertheless, rather than the Torah requiring us to study it, it commands us to teach it thoroughly to our children and to speak of it continuously when we sit at home, walk on the way, lie down, and arise.  (Deut 6:7).  

Why would the Torah explicitly require us to teach (and, of course, to obey/follow/observe it) but not likewise require us to learn?

While it may be obvious that one need first learn in order to teach, I don’t find this a sufficient explanation.  I think there’s a lesson to be ….. taught …. from this.  That lessen is that our active dissemination and promotion of what we already know about Torah, especially to future generations, is more important than increasing our own Torah observance and knowledge.  

In other words, it’s more important to discuss Torah with children and others in the course of ordinary daily living than it is to attend any number of Torah classes or lectures – or reading any number of D’vrei Torah such as this one! 

But how, as a practical matter, are the vast majority of us, who may have very limited formal Torah study, able to teach it?  That the Torah links “teach thoroughly to our children” with “speaking constantly about it” demonstrates that we are expected to teach primarily through everyday word and action. 

I suggest that we begin by explicitly connecting ethical behavior to Torah whenever possible.

For example, when telling a young child how to behave – and especially in response to their plaintive question “WHY?” – we can say, “G-d says so,” “The Torah says so,” or “That’s the Jewish way to behave.”  For older children, we can mention and then, if possible, discuss Jewish ethical sources with them.  References for all levels of understanding are available on the Internet.  We can buy books on Jewish ethical behavior to read and keep available for reference.  And, we can ask rabbis and Jewish educators any questions that arise.

Although it perhaps takes more courage, we can and should also look for opportunities to “teach Torah” during our ordinary interaction with adult family members and friends.  Not necessarily in admonishing them for improper behavior (although this, too, is a Torah obligation), but in spreading and reinforcing Yiddishkeit.  It can start with something as basic as habitually wishing “Shabbat shalom” whenever we communicate with any Jewish person from Wednesday through Saturday. 

Beyond that, whenever we express any kind of judgment about anyone’s behavior, we can invite consideration of “the Jewish point of view.”  This, too, is Torah study. 

Even though our children and grandchildren may attend religious school, we neither fulfill our obligation nor effectively teach them if we limit their Jewish education to several hours per week, performed by others. 

The rabbis of the Talmud noted an oddity in this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, the first in the book of Numbers.  Chapter 3 begins:

This is the line of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Lord spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.  These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadab, the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, those were the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests who were ordained for priesthood. 

Moses’s two sons, Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus18:3, 1 Chronicles 23:15) are not named.  Why, then, does the verse refer to the “line of Aaron and Moses?”   Evidently, our sages concluded, because Moses was so seldom with his wife, Zipporah, and sons, he did not teach them Torah.  Conversely, he was frequently with Aaron’s sons and taught them Torah.   

Our sages derived from this the principle that whoever teaches Torah to others, it is as if they are his/her children.  (Eruvin 54b). 

Thus, we also fulfill Torah’s first commandment – to “be ‘fruitful and multiply’” – by spreading Torah wherever we go.   

Shabbat shalom! 

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