Birkot HaTorah and the Churban: Lessons for today’s Jewish classrooms

This month's essay is by Rachel (Immerman) Glickman who has a B.A. from YU and an M.A. from Azrieli Grad. School, both in Jewish Education. This year Rachel is a fellow in Matan's Bellows Eshkolot Institute for Tanakh and Jewish Studies.

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This essay is in memory of the beloved mother of Barbara Hanus

 As a nation, we love asking questions; for centuries we have been asking what caused the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Beit Hamikdash. The Gemara in Nedarim states that Jerusalem was destroyed because the Jewish people did not say Birkot HaTorah (blessing said in morning prayers,  before learning Torah) 

We know that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed as a result of people violating the three cardinal sins. People are required to give up their lives rather than commit these sins (yehareg v’lo ya’avor – let him be killed rather than transgress) - idol-worship, prohibited illicit relations, bloodshed and in the case of the destruction of the Second Temple, baseless hatred.

Is it possible that neglecting to say Birkot HaTorah is equal to these grave sins?

Let us take a closer look at the origin, nature, and meaning of Birkot HaTorah. To understand further we must explore the inspiration for Birkot HaTorah. G-d’s blessing to Avraham, that “he will become a great nation” (Bereishit 18:18), is followed by a blueprint for how the nation will become great. Avraham will teach the children to behave with tzedek and mishpat, justice and law, spreading what is just and right in the world.

Rabbi Menachem Liebtag identifies this as the start of a mega theme in Tanakh that is revisited in Dvarim 4:5-8. We also see the theme of tzedek and mishpat woven throughout Neviim Achronim (the latter prophets). The common message of the Neviim is that the practice of religion is not enough; Hashem demands that Bnei Yisrael behave as a nation promoting tzedek and mishpat in the world. We see in Yishayahu (Isaiah) chapter one Hashem’s declaration that religious observance will not be accepted without tzedek and mishpat.

Returning to our Gemara in Nedarim, it is interesting to note the context of this particular statement. Chazal (the Talmudic sages)  in their discourse are trying to understand why children of talmidei chachamim (sages) do not always follow in their parents’ footsteps. The Gemara brings the proof text from Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) discussing why the people are not able to discern the reason for the desolate land. Only once Hashem answers do they understand. The answer seems redundant but Rav resolves the apparent redundancy, explaining that the pasukim (verses) “Why is the land in ruins, Laid waste like a wilderness, With none passing through? Hashem replied: Because they forsook the Teaching I had set before them. They did not obey Me and they did not follow it” (Yirmiyahu 9:11-12) is talking about learning Torah and saying Birkot Hatorah.

The children of the talmidei chachamim were missing the point. Their emphasis was on what they were learning, rather than why they were learning. Rabbeinu Nissim, in his commentary on Nedarim 81a, explains that the problem wasn’t a lack of Torah study; rather, the issue was, as he explains, when Yirmiyahu says “they didn’t follow it,” “it” implies that the people were not learning with the proper intentions.

It is interesting to note that the Tur (47) quotes this Gemara as his introduction to Hilkhot Birkot HaTorah. The Tur seemingly diverges from his normal methodology of explaining the halakha, perhaps to emphasize this exact point; he’s highlighting the degree of importance Chazal place on Birkot HaTorah.

Now, let us take a look at the words of the first bracha (blessing)  in Birkot HaTorah, which ends with the words, la’asok (to engage) b’divrei Torah. Notice that this bracha doesn’t finish with a blessing over learning Torah, rather over engaging in Torah matters.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l notes in Reflections upon Birkot Ha-Torah, that la’asok is the verb generally used in the context of commerce. Rav Lichtenstein writes, “What is envisioned is clearly not merely an act, or even a series of acts, but an enterprise. Even for the ordinary individual, belabored by the demands of a secular career, Torah is ideally defined as a calling. For the layman, too, it is, in a very real sense to be a vocation, with all that the concept implies, in terms of aspiration and commitment.”

The tone is set from the start of our day, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is not exclusively intellectual, but it is a commandment to live and to act in the way of learning, with tzedek and mishpat.

This past year I had the tremendous zchut to learn at Matan as a Bellows Eshkolot Scholar. Throughout my year of learning I experienced rigorous intellectual study of Torah which was elevated through the most honest of spiritual pursuits. The beauty of learning at Matan is felt in the freedom to ask questions with the knowledge that whoever is answering the questions is a true Yireh Shamayim (G-d fearing person). I am forever grateful for our remarkable teachers who truly embody what it means to be la’asok b’divrei Torah.

 And may we approach all Torah study with clear intentions not only to gain intellectually, but also to fulfill G-d’s will as a Goy Kadosh , a holy nation. May we bring Birkot HaTorah into the classroom and may our students feel that they’re learning goes far beyond intellectual pursuit. May we continue to consciously say Birkot HaTorah allowing their meaning to enhance our lives and may we see the Beit HaMikdash rebuilt speedily in our day