A certain Jew studied Torah and practiced the commandments in the hopes that he would inherit Paradise. He patiently went over the brilliant arguments in the Talmud; the deep metaphors of the Midrash; the wonderful explanations of Rashi and the subtle questions and complex answers of the Tosephot and other authorities. At moments he would be overcome by the sheer beauty of this intellectual endeavor and could only marvel at their brilliance. Secretly, he wondered to himself, what it could be like to experience Paradise. What kind of pleasures might he encounter as his eternal reward?
One night he had a dream that he had passed on to the next world. To his surprise he found himself at the steps of an academy. He stepped into a study hall and in front of him were rabbis and scholars from generations before sitting around the tables, studying texts and debating the various points of Jewish Law and theology.
He turned to someone near him and remarked, “I don’t understand what’s going on. I thought the rabbis would be in Paradise and this is exactly what we were doing while I was living my former life!”
“You don’t understand,” the person said, smiling. “You thought the rabbis would be in Paradise. The truth is, Paradise is in the rabbis!”
How do I share with you the inner joy of waking in the early hours of the morning – anywhere between four-thirty and five-thirty – having experienced a night’s sleep, sufficient to get out of bed with a clear mind and head downstairs to sit for an hour or so at the breakfast table and think of nothing else than the words of a text that confronts me.
It may be reciting the chapters of Tehilim (Psalms) designated for that particular day of the Jewish month; it could be studying the week’s Torah portion with a particular commentator or Midrash; and it could be sitting down with my cassette player in front of a page of Talmud as I try to read through the Gemara for the first (!) or second time.
I think back to earlier days in South Africa when I was growing up in my parents’ home. My father, also a rabbi, would take me to his synagogue, sit me down in a classroom with the “Hertz Chumash” and then leave me to read the Hebrew of the text and the English on the other side of the page. At the time, I admit, I didn’t exactly love the experience, but it was OK and I did learn a lot of the Hebrew of the Chumash in that way.
Years later, I can only thank him with all my heart that he gave me a background that has influenced my life profoundly and continues to do so more and more, the older I get. The sense of inner-tranquility; of having accomplished something worthwhile gets the day off to the kind of start that means it’s going to be a good day no matter what lies ahead.
I dream to see individuals or families taking fifteen minutes to read one chapter of Bible a day in English – perhaps, even to study with their child or children – and discover a world they had just barely scratched during their own childhood education. Here we are engaged in conversations that are timeless; that have an infinite value and that also reflect life in all its aspects. For some, if not for all, I hope that this experience will have a profound influence on them: to give them strength when life is hard and help them discover a greater purpose to their everyday experiences.
Jewish tradition involves a love-affair with Sacred Texts – “love letters from God” – as a way to practice a love of our Transcendent Creator, which is informed and sincere: a way to discover Paradise! I know our Tradition can – and deserves – to survive, no matter the odds, if we and our children can discover and share this love.