by Rabbi Joshua Buchin, Dean of 11th and 12th Grades

This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, contains within it perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most recited, Jewish text of all time, the Shema, the central Jewish declaration of faith. This is an especially fitting section for the start of the school year, for contained within the first paragraph of the Shema is a commandment to engage in Torah Study. 

“And you shall teach them [the laws and traditions] to your children and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deuteronomy 6: 7).

Study, and Torah study in particular, has been a vital part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years. In fact, Torah study is so important, that according to The Shulchan Aruch, a 16th century code of law, everyone is required to engage in study constantly: 

“All of Israel is obligated in the commandment to study Torah, whether they are poor, whether they are rich, whether they are able-bodied, whether they are suffering, whether they are young, whether they are old, all are obligated to set a time for Torah study by day and by night… Talmud Torah is equal to all of the commandments in the Torah…”  (Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 241.1, 18, 19).

We are instructed to be lifelong learners. Regardless of our age or of our situation in life, the Jewish tradition wants us to be living lives infused with Torah study. The Shulchan Aruch adds something else in the second part of this quote. Torah study is equal to all of the other commandments that we have been given. Why is study so important that it is equal to all other commandments? According to our tradition, it is because study will ultimately lead to action: “The precept to study the Torah stands out against all the rest of the commandments, because study leads to practice” (Mishneh Torah, Torah Study 3:3). Maimonides is quoting a famous Talmudic debate about whether action or study is greater:

“Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, for study leads to action” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b).

Studying in a vacuum is not enough. We have to be able to take that learning and apply those values, morals, and ideas to our actions in this world. Our learning must empower us to be effective leaders in society, to cultivate more compassion, caring, and empathy, and ultimately help us make the world a better place. 

As the new school year approaches, we can expand this lesson to refer to all kinds of learning. Study is essential in life. It is through learning that we grow, deepen our understanding, challenge our perceptions, and ultimately become the best versions of ourselves. May this coming year be a time where we all engage fully with the learning that we do, both inside and outside of the classroom. May this learning inspire in us more curiosity, more passion, more drive, and more meaning. And may this learning lead us to action and help us improve the world around us.