Shavuos: holiday of flowers, cheesecake, blintzes – and so much more. Like the first Shavuos three thousand years ago, this holiday presents us with an opportunity to reach true personal acceptance of the Torah.
How can we bring ourselves toward this point? How can we overcome our feelings of distance, overwhelm, unworthiness or plain old disinterest and truly accept the Torah?
What is Torah?
Before we can answer this question, we need to address a far more basic one:
How do we view Torah? What does Torah mean to us?
Asked that question, many people will describe Torah as an instruction manual – a rulebook for Jewish living. Technically, that definition makes sense. Considering our People’s relationship to Torah over the past few millennia, however, something about that answer leaves us wanting more.
For thousands of years, people have dedicated their entire lives, gone through fire and torture and loss, given up their last pennies and even their last breaths – all for the love of Torah. Why? How could a mere rulebook command such selfless love?
And what does that mean for us? How much passion or undying devotion can we be expected to feel toward – an instruction manual?
Torah: Master Educator
The first section of Midrash Rabba on Bereishis opens our eyes to a novel perspective. There, Torah is described as a “pedagogue” – a master educator. Approaching Torah with this definition paves the way to a whole new dimension of connection. How?
In his commentary on Bereishis (14:14), Rashi defines education as the process of establishing a person in his destined career or vocation. Education isn’t just about teaching a skill or craft. It’s about preparing a student to perform and succeed in that craft on his own.
True educators empower. True educators transform. Torah, the consummate teacher, has the power to transform us into people fully equipped to achieve ultimate success in life.
What gives it that power? What sets it apart as the world’s most impactful educator?
Think back to your school days. There were the teachers, and then there were the influencers – the people who really changed and shaped your life. Was it the stats, the facts, the formulas they taught you that touched you the most? Or was it something else about them that inspired you?
The Midrash compares the Torah’s “teaching style” to that of a “nurse who carries a baby” (Bamidbar 11:12). True educators don’t just relay information – they build a relationship with their students. They show that they care. They notice the potential in every one of their pupils and guide them to achieve.
The “Push” and “Pull” of Torah
But even the closest, most edifying relationship can only empower students so much. The best educators understand that in order for true, lasting growth to occur, another technique must be added to the mix.
Every parent who teaches their child to ride a bicycle employs this special blend of techniques. Picture the scene: Parent and child head out to the sidewalk, or maybe to a park. Parent explains, demonstrates, takes the child for a few practice runs while holding the handlebars. Then, with a call of encouragement, the parent gives a push – and off the child flies. He rides for a few seconds, loses control, falls, bruises himself. Then, with his parent’s encouragement echoing in his ears, he picks himself up and climbs back onto his bike.
This scenario reflects the ultimate chinuch formula revealed by Chazal (Sanhedrin 107b): pushing students away with one’s left hand, while pulling them close with one’s right. What does that mean? How does a great educator apply this formula practically?
First, he motivates his students by displaying genuine, whole-hearted belief in their potential. At the same time, he nudges them toward growth and achievement by pushing them out of their comfort zones onto higher ground.
Torah, Educator of educators, utilizes this blend of “push” and “pull” as well. The 613 mitzvah-“rules” serve as the Torah’s “left hand,” prodding us to achieve by constantly projecting a portrait of true greatness into our line of vision.
How can we feel the effects of the Torah’s “right hand?” By reviewing the wondrous stories that fill the first two Books of the Torah. The tales of the Avos, and of Hashem’s special bond with them. The saga of Yetzias Mitzrayim, and the ocean of love Hashem poured upon us through His miracles. The global spectacle of Krias Yam Suf, Hashem’s message to the entire world about just how dedicated He is to His nation. The unprecedented action He took of descending onto Har Sinai to personally give us the Torah. These stories shed light on the profound interest Hashem takes in us and the endless investments He’s made in our success.
So yes, our Teacher may demand much of us, may push us beyond our comfort zones and hold us to exacting standards. But before we get caught up in the rules and expectations, let’s give a few moments thought to the stories that precede them – stories of events that Hashem orchestrated specifically to highlight His interest in us, His belief in our potential. The more we can open our hearts to that belief, the more empowered we will feel to step up to the Torah’s challenge – and to achieve the greatness Hashem believes us capable of.
Keeping the Chinuch Alive
Rashi, as we mentioned earlier, defines chinuch as the process of establishing a student into a lifelong career. Chinuch is about the future. Master mechanchim aren’t USB drives, injecting information into passive students’ minds. Neither are they policemen, existing to ensure that rules are followed in the moment. Great mechanchim instill values – and then empower their students to live by those values independently.
How do mechanchim achieve this? How do they ensure that their chinuch endures?
Shlomo Hamelech, wisest of all men, reveals one powerful key to successful chinuch: “Chanoch l’na’ar al pi darko – gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimenu.” Educate a child or student according to his “way,” and he’ll retain that chinuch even when he grows old.
How can we educate according to a child’s “way?” What exactly was Shlomo Hamelech referring to?
The Vilna Gaon explains that every baby arrives in this world with a distinct, unalterable nature. As humans, we can use our free choice to control this nature, to channel it in desirable directions – but we can never change its essence.
Our nature forms the base of our identity. This base combines with our upbringing, life-circumstances, and life experiences to form the complete – and completely unique – picture of who we are. This is the “derech” Shlomo Hamelech refers to in his advice to mechanchim. Truly successful educators relate to each student individually. They work to gain a holistic feel for who their students are and customize their lessons to match each student’s needs.
Torah: Close and Personal
Torah, educator extraordinaire, has been utilizing this technique to perfection since Ma’amad Har Sinai. The Midrash tells us that when Hashem uttered the first two Commandments, the voice He used was the same voice described in Tehillim (29:4) as “Kol Hashem bakoach,” “The voice of Hashem with strength.”
Because the pasuk simply states “with strength” as opposed to “with His strength,” the Midrash deduces that the Torah was presented to each member of Klal Yisrael according to their “strength” – their capacity to live up to the Torah’s ideals.
When it comes to spiritual growth, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. We tend to assume that the Torah measures success on some great yardstick of universal standards. When others make greater spiritual strides than us, we beat down on ourselves for our comparative weakness.
What if we were told that Torah itself doesn’t compare? Torah doesn’t lump people together under cookie-cutter ideals. It never expects achievements beyond our capabilities. Like the master mechanech of Shlomo Hamelech’s advice, Torah embraces the complete picture behind every Jew.
As it did at Ma’amad Har Sinai, Torah speaks to each of us individually, challenging the specific nature of each one of us. What is the goal of these challenges? To push us just one step further. To prod us to climb just one rung higher.
On this journey of growth, objective ideals are meaningless. Torah isn’t interested in mass-produced results, no matter how perfect. Its ultimate wish for us is to develop the unique self that Hashem implanted within every Jew.
If we truly want to become students of the Torah, we need to internalize that we – with all our challenges, weaknesses and imperfections – are exactly who Hashem wants us to be. We need to turn our focus from the successes of others to the unique set of strengths and struggles within us. Then, when we feel the Torah’s push, we’ll know that it was tailored exactly to our needs and capabilities. Our love for Torah will increase, and we’ll find ourselves far more open to accepting the Torah’s message.
Rabbi Levi Lebovits is the Director of the Vaad Project, in Denver, an initiative to help Jews find joy, meaning and fulfillment in their Judaism. For over 10 years he has worked with hundreds of Jews from all walks of life, either in groups or one on one, to create breakthroughs in life and in their commitment to Torah and mitzvos. He has had the opportunity to study under one the greatest baalei Mussar of our time, Rav Reuven Leuchter, for close to 20 years.