“To Preserve, Perform and Fulfill” – Writing Your Living Torah
Not all of us consider ourselves writers, but at countless times in our lives, all of us write. Sometimes we write because we just really need to remember something. Other times, we write because we want to share an idea. And sometimes we write because we feel the urgency bubbling up under our skin and into the wrinkles of our forehead, rattling our fingers with a nervous electricity that can find exit only through letting them serve their function as vessels for the transmission of the Divine creative spark that burns from the very core of the heart, its smolder sending a pillar of intoxicating smoke up to the human intellect:
Øøéç ðéçåç, àùä ìä×.Ø - “A pleasing fragrance, a fire offering to God.” (Shemot/Exodus 29:18)
It is abundantly clear throughout countless Torah sources that one of the quintessential goals of a Jew is to be a scholar - a Talmid Chacham. According to the Rambam, whose Halachic (Jewish legal) code forms much of the basis for the Shulchan Aruch - the Magnum Opus of Halacha - beggars and rich people alike must set times for learning Torah during the day and the night.
As we see, it is of central importance to the Jewish faith that we remain actively engaged in studying its principles, in seeking and acquiring Torah knowledge. Some of us attend a weekly Torah class and feel grateful to have had the opportunity to engage with the traditions of our ancestors; some of us learn for a half our or an hour each morning before going to work; some of us have a daily Chavruta (study session with a partner) that depends on us to prepare a piece of Talmud to review before the next day’s meeting. These are all beautiful ways of engaging with the Torah, and each person receives reward in this world and the next for their learning, each according to their level.
For most of my life I have been a person who loves to read. As a younger child I had a fascination with fantasy worlds, especially those of a magical nature, and would devour Harry Potter or Percy Jackson-esque books with legendary ferocity. Sometimes I would finish a chapter, move on to the next chapter, and sooner rather than later forget the events of the former chapter and end up having to skim it all over again. At my current place in my Torah trajectory, I often find myself doing the same thing – whether I’m blasting through Halachot with an eye towards finishing the Ben Ish Chai arrangement for the week, or breezing through an intuitive Mussar (ethical self-help) Sefer with the intention of acknowledging that I’ve perfected each character trait that I read about as I go along (pause - not). More often than not I find myself automatically lapsing into this type of learning when I’m learning on my own, and more often than not, somebody could ask me what I’m learning while I’ve got my nose in the book and I might pause for a second, scratch my head and realize that I have no idea.
While I have by no means reached perfection in its implementation, I found the solution to this problem in the same chapter of Rambam where he explains the central importance of learning Torah. He poses the question: “until when is a person obligated to study Torah?”
And responds: “until the day they die… whenever a person is not involved with study, he forgets” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:8-10). In other words: it is not enough to simply learn Torah. One must actively work to preserve Torah – to hold onto every last bit that you learn and make it unforgettable - in order to fulfill the Mitzvah in its entirety.
For me, this is where writing comes in. You see, the overwhelming majority of the Sfarim (Torah-related books) that we read were not part of the scroll package that God passed down to Moses at Sinai. Even if you’re of the school of belief that the Rabbinic writings such as the Mishna and Talmud are entirely composed of previously extant oral traditions that were simply copied and pasted into those volumes, you agree that every Jewish book since those canonical volumes (with the possible exception of the Zohar) has been written by another Jewish human, with a quill and scroll, a pen and notebook, a typewriter and copy paper, or a laptop and Internet.
Why do I bring this up? For one simple reason – clearly, if the countless thousands of Jewish heroes who wrote the majority of the Sfarim we learn today spent all their time learning Torah instead of writing, we wouldn’t have any of our illustrious biblical commentaries, Halachic codes, philosophical treatises, ethical teachings, or mystical explorations. These books were all written by people who were taught that a certain group of books were called “The Torah,” and that those were the books that every Jew needed to be learning constantly, “in the morning and in the night,” and reviewing incessantly lest they forget. However, those people all found the confidence and chutzpah within themselves to put their learning aside in order to produce content that, while inspired by their studies, certainly came into being through that very personal incense altar in the depths of the human heart.
These individuals had the confidence to recognize that the spark of creativity within them was certainly an expression of the Divine Will, and the “holy chutzpah” to at least partially prioritize the dissemination of their personal Divine expression over the acquisition of the collective Divine expression inherent within those volumes of Torah literature that already existed at the time. In other words – they believed that their writing was an essential part of their Torah learning, that one could not exist without the other. They paved the way for us to realize that the obligation of Torah learning is not simply an obligation to learn or even teach those truths which other Jewish people have already discovered – this is only the first step towards fulfilling that quintessential Mitzvah. One can spend their entire life learning Torah without ever preserving Torah – preserving occurs only when the Torah has been reviewed to the point that it becomes a part of a person’s mentality, and thereby influences the Divine seed of an individual’s creative understanding to bear fresh fruit nourished by the living waters of the past generations’ Torah. And what better way to do this, than to write down one’s thoughts and share them with the rest of the world, and preserve them for future generations to look back upon as part of the Torah that will inspire their own writing… When Torah becomes a part of us, our writing becomes Torah. Every individual has the potential to write countless Divrei Torah originating from the unique perspective of their soul.
With this deeper understanding of the Mitzvah of learning Torah, we find a whole new meaning to the words that we say every morning in the Blessings of the Shema: Øììîåã åììîã, ìùîåø ìòùåú åì÷ééíØ – “to learn and to teach, to preserve, to perform and to fulfill.” Learning and teaching are only the first steps of acquiring Torah. Preserving is where the Mitzvah begins to reach its ultimate evolution – when the unique spark of Divine creativity in each Jew is used to develop a personal Torah perspective, and that spark is preserved through the action of writing, the Mitzvah of learning Torah is fulfilled in its greatest sense, and the fragrance of Gan Eden’s air wafts throughout every dimension of the Godly Universe.
Ya’akov Adam Schwartz
Ya’akov (Jacob) Adam Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
Is the true Jewish ideal to sit and learn Torah all day? What about when it's at the expense of earning a living and, in Israel at least, defending your country? When did the "kollel life" become the norm and not the exception? Didn't our ancestors, even from the time of the Bible, fight battles and hold down jobs?
See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here
If you have a question about Jewish values that you would like to ask rabbis from multiple denominations, click here
to enter your question. We will ask rabbis on our panel for answers and post them. You can also search
our repository of over 800 questions and answers about Jewish values.
For more great Jewish content, please subscribe in the right-hand column. Once you confirm your subscription, you'll get an email whenever new content is published to the Jewish Values Online blog.