The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Torah study and the dignity of man
BEREISHIT, Genesis 1:1-6:8

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Going round in circles

My head is still spinning from the festival of Succot, which we celebrated all last week. On each morning of the first days of the festival we made a one-circuit procession around the synagogue Torah reading desk carrying our palm branches, citrons, myrtle and willow branches ("the four kinds", Leviticus 23:40) chanting prayers. On the morning of the seventh day, we made seven circuits. That night, eve of the eighth day, we took out all the Torah scrolls from the ark and carried them around the synagogue in seven series of circuits to the accompaniment of happy singing and dancing. We did the same the following morning, dancing more and more circles... Then we concluded the annual cycle of the reading of the Five Books of Moses - and immediately afterwards went back to the beginning to start the new cycle: "In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth." (Gen. 1:1).

A circle has no beginning or end, and likewise the divine wisdom contained in God's Torah is never-ending, infinite... We humans, however, are finite creatures: we need to start somewhere and to know that we are headed to some destination or end point. Thus the Torah has a beginning and an end. Yet as soon as we reach the end (Deuteronomy 34:12), we cycle right back to the beginning again, because the Torah, like a circle, goes on forever.

Ancient Jewish tradition ordains that the time for ending the annual Torah-reading cycle and beginning afresh comes after the spiritual heights of the "Days of Awe" (the New Year and Day of Atonement, September-October), at the climax of the ensuing joyous Succot festival on the "Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly" (Leviticus 23:36): "Simchat Torah", "Rejoicing of the Torah". (Outside the land of Israel this is held on the 9 th day of the festival).

Good resolutions: A regular study schedule

This is a season of renewal and a time for good resolutions. Thus many students and lovers of the Torah use this season to strengthen their commitment to a regular schedule of Torah study covering not only the weekly Torah portion, Prophets and Holy Writings (the Bible, "TaNaCh") but also other fundamental Torah literature. Each person makes his or her own schedule according to their level of knowledge, area of interest and availability of time. Even if one can find only a few minutes here and there out of a busy day to open or browse a Torah work, this alone shines light, wisdom and blessing into our lives.

In this world we are exposed to a multitude of often confusing messages and influences, some positive, others highly negative. Within ourselves our minds and hearts are sometimes assailed with conflicting thoughts and feelings. We desperately need a source of true guidance as to how to follow a life-path that can bring us to genuine, lasting happiness.

This source of guidance is the Torah - a book, or rather a literature that you read not just once but study and review over and over again. For only through regular study and review do our knowledge and understanding of God's Wisdom increase and remain in our minds and hearts. Torah study is one of the three things on which the world stands, the other two being prayer and acts of kindness (Pirkey Avot 1:2).

Should gentiles study the Torah?

The Torah was specifically given to the Children of Israel to guard and observe, and many of its commandments apply only to those who are members of the people of Israel, whether by birth or through voluntary, lawful conversion. At the same time the Torah is full of teachings that apply to all mankind, especially the Seven Universal Laws, and it is a treasury of eternal wisdom, guidance, love and compassion for all.

1. Every gentile is obligated to learn and understand the Seven Universal Laws, which apply to all people. Under Noahide law a gentile may be executed for unintentionally violating one of the Seven Laws through ignorance, because he should have learned (Talmud, Maccot 9; Bava Kama 91).

2. Every gentile is commanded to know HaShem (Introduction to Talmud by Rav Nissim Gaon, 990-1062).

3. It is forbidden for a gentile to study those portions of the Torah that apply only to the people of Israel as members of the Covenant obligated to observe all 613 Commandments of the Torah specifically given to Israel. According to the Talmud, a gentile who studies those portions would be liable to death from Heaven (Sanhedrin 59a). This would apply to depth study of the Talmud and Kabbalah, for the proper understanding of which years of preparation are required. Without these, such study can be dangerous for the student and possibly for many others around him or her. Any gentile who sincerely wishes to make a deep study of Talmud or the original Kabbalistic texts should first convert.

4. It is permitted for a gentile to study those of the 613 commandments for Israelites that a gentile may observe voluntarily without converting. Later commentaries in this series will set forth what these commandments are.

5. Other Torah and works that gentiles may study with benefit and without danger would include the Bible and works on the fundamentals of Torah faith, belief and ethical self-improvement by acknowledged rabbinical authorities, including Rabbi Moses Maimonides ("Rambam", 1135-1204), Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto ("Ramchal", 1707-47), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe (1745-1812), and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).

Make time

As we celebrate the first Shabbat after the festivals and embark on our journey through the New Year, let us carry with us the lesson of the dance circles of Simchat Torah. All of us, Jew and Gentile, each in our own way, must "carry the Torah around with us" as we pursue our lives each day of the annual cycle - by setting ourselves regular times to study the Torah during the day and during the week, each according to our own unique life situation.

In Hebrew, a Torah study session is called a SHIUR, which means a "measure". For different people the measure - a paragraph, a page, several pages, a chapter or more - must necessarily be different. What is important is that each one gets his or her daily portion of all the spiritual vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that nourish the soul. For "the Torah of HaShem is perfect, restoring the soul" (Psalms 19:8).

Your regular "measure" of Torah, be it a few minutes each day, a weekly or bi-weekly class or more, will bring more to your life than many forms of entertainment. It also usually costs much less money! For the Torah is acquired not with money but through devotion.





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