Shavuos, the day on which we received the Torah, is celebrated with great joy every year. Besides the euphoria that Shavuos invokes, it is a day on which we ought to contemplate how we can connect ourselves more to Torah.
Torah is compared to a spouse to the Jewish people (see Psachim, 49b). It is not just a composition of laws and instructions, but a spiritual entity that we can connect to. This concept is brought out in the reading which is customarily recited upon the completion of a tractate of Talmud: “I shall return to you and you shall return to me.” Therefore, in order to create a true bond between us and the Torah, we must investigate what it takes for the Torah to make itself welcome in our midst.
The Chasid Ya’abetz (in his introduction to the sixth chapter of Avos) says as follows: “The Torah does not reside but within someone who is void of bad character traits, and full of honorable ones. And this is what God meant when he instructed the Jews to prepare for three days prior to receiving the Torah, that they should rid themselves of unscrupulous character traits which prevent their souls from acquiring Torah. All the previous chapters (of Avos) are full of important matters which bring the soul closer to its Creator and arouse it to serve Him. And therefore, it is customary to study them (the chapters of Avos) before the day of accepting the Torah… There is no doubt that at this time of year we are ready to accept any matter of service of God more than any other time, because the impression our souls received then (from readying ourselves at the time the Torah was given to us) will spark within us now.”
This concept is reflected in the words of the Medrash saying (Vayikra Rabboh, 9:3) that Derech Eretz, respectful behavior, comes before Torah. Similarly, The Mishnah says(Avos 3:17), “If there is no Drech Eretz, there is no Torah.” Rabeinu Yonah explains in his commentary on the Mishnah, “A person must first amend himself with proper character, and with this the Torah will be bestowed upon him, for the Torah never resides in a body which does not possess good character traits.”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein once honored a rabbi with listening to a lecture in his Yeshiva (school for Torah study). Rabbi Feinstein sat the entire time with a focused composition, listening intently to every word. After the lecture, a student approached the Rosh Yeshiva (dean), Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and commented with puzzlement, “The lecture was given in English. I thought the Rosh Yeshiva doesn’t understand English.”
“You are right,” answered Rabbi Feinstein, “I did not understand a single word.”
“But I saw the Rosh Yeshiva straining with concentration the entire time! What was that about?” pressed the student.
“After the lecture, I will go home and answer various inquiries in Torah law. Our sages tell us (Megillah, 6b) that one requires Divine assistance to arrive at a proper conclusion in Torah. Being that Derech Eretz comes before Torah, without Derech Eretz I will not merit Divine assistance. Since it would not be Derech Eretz to sit at a lecture without paying attention, I did my best to concentrate, trying to listen.”
Acquiring Torah is no simple feat. Unlike any other area of scholarship, Torah cannot be attained by means of study alone. In order to integrate Torah properly into our souls, we must make ourselves attractive to the Torah. Torah doesn’t go to just anyone; it seeks out people of upstanding character to be bonded with. This time of year, Shavuos, is a special time for bringing Torah into our lives. As the Chasid Ya’avetz told us, we have special Divine assistance available now for this precise merit. We ought to take advantage of this precious period of Shavuos by committing ourselves to improving our character and finding ways to raise our level of Derech Eretz, so that the Torah should truly make itself welcome in our midst.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber