Entering the high‑ceiling, table‑lined Beit Midrash at 4:37 am, Jason was simultaneously overwhelmed by the thick smell of coffee and the roar of hundreds of people learning Torah at the top of their lungs. The room was simply pulsating with activity. He shuffled through the maze of tie‑clad individuals, placed a thick, well worn Talmudic text next to his third cup of coffee, and reached over to scoot his seat out from under the table.
As his hand grabbed the back of the plastic chair, he remembered the rule of the night: sitting meant sleeping. He returned the chair and moved toward a wooden lectern. He and 200 others had been learning intently in the Beit Midrash since 9:00 the previous evening ‑ more than seven hours straight ‑ and they still had two hours until sunrise. Exhausted as he was, Jason felt determined to immerse himself in the Talmud until dawn. Caffeine would provide an artificial boost of energy (and blood pressure), but ultimately, Jason's desire to learn and his sheer perseverance would bring the long night to a successful close.
Like Jason, tens of thousands of Jews all over the world spend the first night of Shavuot studying Torah. Even though many people view this experience as unique, it really serves as a model for the entire year. Hashem commands, "This book of the Torah is not to leave your mouth; you shall contemplate it day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8). This commandment is one of the most difficult and fully encompassing Mitzvot. A Jew must designate time every day for the study of Torah. Ideally, many hours should be set aside, but regardless of quantity, the Torah must remain the ultimate aim of every Jew. The more effort we infuse into studying the Torah, the more it becomes a part of us and the more it strengthens our relationship with Hashem.
In Pirkei Avot (2:17), Rabbi Yose galvanizes us, saying, "Prepare yourself to learn Torah, for it is not [effortlessly attainable] for you [like] an inheritance." The harder we work to improve our character and the more diligently we pursue the depths of Torah knowledge, the more Hashem rewards us for our efforts in this world and the next.
Rav Chaim of Volozhin, one of the greatest Torah scholars and leaders in Lithuania at the beginning of the 19th century, emphasizes this concept by citing two sources that seem to contradict it. In the course of blessing the Jewish people before his death, Moshe describes the Torah as being "the eternal _____ (heritage) for the Congregation of Israel" (Devarim 33:4). The Hebrew word _____can also connote inheritance, because it is something that comes automatically and without effort. This suggests a guarantee of automatic success in Torah study and growth.
Similarly, the Talmud records that any family with three generations of Torah scholars is guaranteed (by Hashem) the continuation of Torah scholarship in future generations. As the Talmud homoletically summarizes, "The Torah always returns to its familiar place of lodging." A family that has welcomed the Torah for three generations can be compared to a store owner, and the Torah to a loyal customer. However, while this may sound nice, it seems to contradict the passage in Pirkei Avot that states Torah knowledge can only be attained through diligent study.
Rav Chaim suggests that really there is no contradiction and the passage in Pirkei Avot is carefully crafted to dispel the false notion that the Torah can be attained effortlessly. To see this, however, the Pasuk needs to be translated more precisely. Hashem does promise that the Torah is the inheritance of the Jewish people and will always exist amongst us as a living, dynamic entity, but each individual must prove himself worthy of its acquisition.
Furthermore, the Torah will return as a faithful guest to its familiar place of lodging within the family of Torah scholars. However, as any hotel manager knows, if paint is peeling from the walls and the rooms smell moldy and uninviting, even loyal customers will not come back. Similarly, unless the house is a welcome environment, the Torah will not return. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to demonstrate that he deserves to continue the tradition of scholarship and piety established by his ancestors.
Growth in Torah is the most meaningful and longest lasting accomplishment an individual can achieve. The more effort we put into it, the more we receive in return. Indeed, on Shavuot and every night, it is our obligation and privilege to dedicate ourselves to personal development through Hashem's Torah.