Parshat Yitro: Exodus 18:1-20:23; Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6.
Many wonder what is the real secret of the Jewish nation? How do the Jews have so many members who invest their entire lives in study and scholarship? What is the deeper reason for motivation to acquire knowledge and be educated?
More than 3,000 years ago, a small percentage of people knew how to read. Only the most elite received education. The ruling class specifically intended it that way to ensure that the common folk wouldn’t have the capacity to revolt. In ancient Egypt, most of the Jewish people were busy a full day with forced labor; they did not have time to study.
Then came the giving of the Torah, which represented the complete opposite of Egyptian belief. God did not just give the Torah to a select few of the most honored rabbis, but to all men, women and children. Ever since, Torah study became an inheritance; everyone has the right and obligation to study Torah.
We read in Parshat Yitro that prior to receiving the Torah, the Jews pledged na’aseh, “we will do;” and the Torah tells us that they all said it together in one voice. Later, when they pledged na’aseh v’nishma; the verse states, “And they said, ‘All that God said, we will do and we will listen’” not “together” and not “in one voice.”
The meaning of “we will do” is simply to do everything that God commands. The meaning of “we will listen,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe of righteous memory explains that it’s not just to hear, which is obvious, but to understand and grasp God’s words.
When it comes to na’aseh, doing/action, then the entire nation is unified. Everyone keeps the same mitzvot. Everyone lights Shabbat candles, puts on tefillin, fasts on Yom Kippur, etc.
When it comes to nishmah, the understanding and grasping of Torah, there isn’t that same unity. Everyone has an individual obligation to try to understand the words of the Torah. Judaism encourages everyone to think on their own and not just accept things because someone greater said so.
That is the secret; the people do not accept anything at face value. They are all encouraged to ask questions and challenge every conclusion they read.
In Judaism, we find all approaches. Some believe the best way to get close to God is through happiness. Some are convinced it’s only through doing good unto others. Many believe they must dedicate their entire lives to Torah study, and some argue that one specifically needs to get out into the big world and integrate into some practical industry.
Each has the right to think differently, and teachers even encourage independent thinking. Therefore, in Judaism, study has turned into an intellectual experience, something that people enjoy.
Rabbi Schneor Greenberg is rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of Commerce, firstname.lastname@example.org.