Rabbi Joseph Dweck: Vayelekh-Kippur: The More You Know

“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” — Benjamin Franklin

On the last day of Moshe’s life, he gathered all of the people together to share his parting words. In his message he informed them of the Torah’s final two commandments, both of which are linked to education. The first requires the people to gather at the Holy Temple every seven years in order to hear the Torah read to the public by the king. Men, women and children are required to attend this gathering. The second requires every man in the nation to write his own Sepher Torah (Torah scroll).

The final mitzvot of the Torah are about scholarship. The first, called Hakhel, is a national gathering for the purpose of learning. Even young children are meant to experience the coming together of the nation for the sake of knowledge. Each decade of a person’s life would involve this gathering. It would set hearing the teachings of Torah and absorbing the information as a national value.

So that they should hear and that they should learn… And their children who do not know will hear and learn…(31:12-13)

The writing of the Sepher Torah requires that the full text of the Torah is to be with every individual; it is to be written, read and studied.

And now, write for yourselves down this song, teach it to the Children of Israel, put it in their mouths… (31:19)

It is scholarship that is the final note of G-d’s Torah. The highlighted point is that it is not meant to be for a particular class or sect of scholars. It is for everyone. In Torah, education is not for the elite it is the foundation for every human life.

No matter the level of our natural intelligence, we all have the ability to choose to be knowledgeable or ignorant. Torah’s commandments end with charges to create environments in which learning is the culture of the people and where voluntary ignorance is a cardinal transgression. There is much that can be said regarding the failure of teachers to teach, of schools to educate and of mentors to enlighten. But none of it excuses us from owning the responsibility to search for wisdom on our own. We live in an age where information is more readily available to us than at any point in human history — including Jewish education.

Three thousand years ago Moshe implored each of us to own a copy of the entire Torah and to hear it read by every member of our population. Today, with the stroke of a finger, worlds of information are freely and abundantly available to us. If we wish to be strong in our identities, we must study. If we wish to understand who we are and what the world is about, we must commit to learning.

On Yom Kippur we focus a great deal on what we lack in our behaviours and personalities. We consider that we could be kinder, gentler, more generous and sensitive with others. But the fact that we could all better understand the body of knowledge that has educated and inspired our people for millennia is not usually the most evident aspect of self-development. Broadening our understanding of Judaism may seem daunting, as there is a great deal to know. One approach that we can take is to commit to learning — even in small portions — on a consistent basis. Whether it be a weekly class or a daily reading of a section in Torah, learning prompts questioning, questioning prompts discovery and discovery brings enlightenment. Moshe’s final message was not simply to learn, but to make learning a regular part of one’s life.

This piece was written by Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi at The S&P Sephardi Community