Blessed be Adonoi, our God, Ruler of the universe, Who sanctifies us by commanding us to engage in words of Torah.
In our congregation, just before every Bar or Bat Mitzvah student shares their D’var Torah, our Rabbi always says the same thing: “while our Jewish tradition does, indeed, hold study and learning to be among our highest values, the Torah does not actually explicitly command us to study. It does, however, command us to teach.” This is evident in the Ve’ahavta recitation, coming straight from Torah, which commands us to, “teach it to your children.”
I have always understood the blessing above to command the study of Torah. A closer look though indicates that the Hebrew verb for study, lilmod, is not used here. What then does la’asok actually mean? If not study, what does it mean to “engage in words of Torah”?
The root as”k suggests the idea of “to be occupied with”, “busy with”, or “involved with”. In fact, the blessing above does not stand alone in our liturgy. This passage is typically followed directly by another, also from the discussion in Berachot 11b, which expresses a plea to God to help us love and be receptive to the words of Torah, that we may find enjoyment in its study.
O Adonai, our God, let the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths and the mouths of Your people Israel, so that we, our descendants, and the descendants of all Your people Israel may know You, by studying Your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are You, Adonai, who teaches Torah to your people Israel.
Torah is not simply a body of knowledge or unit of study. Torah is a spiritual path and a way of life. Ultimately, it is God who is the ultimate teacher of Torah, and we study, not as a divinely commanded obligation on its own, but rather as a divinely inspired act. When one pronounces these blessings together as a whole, we begin to understand that, although not all of us can be great scholars of Torah, we can all be engaged with Torah as a fundamental aspect of our spiritual lives. Through that engagement with Torah, we engage with our Creator. This is the truest sense of Torah Lishmah – studying Torah not out of any sense of obligation or commitment, but out of a sense of true devotion to God. It is more an act of spiritual desire than of compliance.
Our Sages asked why the word la’asok is used rather than the more conventional lilmod (Orach Hayyim 47:1). They answer that, while not everyone has the time or energy to study the Torah as implied by the word lomed, everyone should be able to be engaged in and otherwise be busy in matters of practicing the Torah as a routine aspect of their lives. Hence the preferential use of the word la’asok. The Maharal taught that brachot are said over an action, not over knowledge. In this sense, la’asok b’divrei Torah is not theoretical at all. It is not about study of Torah; it is about living a life of Torah. For this opportunity, we give thanks to our God.
Image credit: Sergey Nivens / 123RF Stock Photo