This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –
Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names. On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study. If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here. Obviously we pray here regularly. Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim. And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.
But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash. It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming. None. Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie. And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.
And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals. I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray. But on Shavuot it is different. On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.
There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study. Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life. But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study. No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer. There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia. He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly. We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now! In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost mundane. But study? That is the gateway to eternal life. The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.
But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about. The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments. In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice. But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book. We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’ And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.
And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years. The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God. It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die. God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know. And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’ And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’
Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away. So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours. When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem. But he has an idea, the Angel of Death. He’ll distract David. And that is exactly what he does. According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree. David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study. And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.
On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale. But read between the lines with me for a moment. In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition. The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study. And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival. Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.
But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since. The Torah can go anywhere. It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States. Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study. And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life. In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live. We might say the same about the Jewish people. From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people. Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people. May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.