The More Torah, The More Life

September 23, 2021Rabbi Sally J. Priesand

When I became rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ, I quickly discovered that some people in our community thought we were a church. Mail was addressed to “Monmouth Reformed Temple,” and letters were addressed “Dear Pastor.” There came a time when we decided that our congregation needed a Hebrew name to accompany its English one. A committee was appointed and, after several months of discussion, they decided to recommend M’kom Tikvah (A Place of Hope). When the committee presented its report at the annual meeting, a past president stood up and said: “It sounds like a nursing home” – and that was the end of that!

The committee met again and decided on a motto instead of a name. I recommended the words of Hillel in Pirke Avot 2:8: “מַרְבֶּה תוֹרָה מַרְבֶּה חַיִּים“ – “The more Torah, the more life.” The alliteration with MRT, as we often call our temple, was perfect and, before long, these words in Hebrew and English began to appear on our stationery, in our bulletin, on t-shirts and golf shirts and book bags, and in the printed program we hand out at services. Words spoken two thousand years ago by one of our greatest sages had now become associated with Monmouth Reform Temple in a unique and special way.

For me, the most impressive part of our worship service is the reading of Torah, a sacred spiritual experience meant to recreate that moment when the Jewish people stood at Sinai to enter God’s eternal covenant. Every time we take a Torah scroll from the ark, we join our people at the foot of the mountain and strain to hear God’s voice in an attempt to understand what God would have us do and be.

During most of the service, we speak to God through our prayers, but when we read Torah, God speaks to us, and soon we discover that Torah is all about embracing basic human values, repairing the world, doing mitzvot and fulfilling those obligations that come with being Jewish. Three thousand years ago, our people stood at Sinai and said, “נעשה ונשמע” – our people stood at Sinai and said, “We shall do and we shall hearken” with the hope that doing God’s commandments would bring them closer to God’s presence.

Reading Torah from the bimahbimahבִּימָהThe platform in the synagogue from which which worship services are led and from which the Torah is read. The bimah, usually raised, can be placed in the front or the middle of the sanctuary. is very different from studying Torah. When we study Torah, we are encouraged to ask questions, to delve into the meaning of the text, and linger over every word and every phrase. We consult the commentaries compiled over the centuries containing the wisdom and insight of our sages, and we add our own interpretations. When we study Torah, we are, in a very real sense, thinking God’s thoughts and participating in that conversation that binds together all the generations of our people. Our lives are enriched and our ability to teach our children and grandchildren is enhanced by becoming more Jewishly literate ourselves.

What I think Hillel meant when he said, “מַרְבֶּה תוֹרָה מַרְבֶּה חַיִּים” – “The more Torah, the more life” is not that Torah study will lead to longer life but that by understanding our heritage and doing mitzvot, our lives will have greater meaning and purpose. We often say to our children: “I just want you to be happy.” But that is not how our tradition really looks at life. Happiness never lasts forever. It is little more than a by-product of the way in which we pursue our dreams. In Judaism, “You shall be happy” should be “You shall be holy.” You shall lead a life of significance and value. Torah helps us do that. How fortunate we are, then, that the Union for Reform Judaism provides Ten Minutes of Torah to educate and challenge us.

When Rabbi Rick Jacobs told me that in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of my ordination, Ten Minutes of Torah would be written this year by five female identifying colleagues (three rabbis, one cantor and one educator), I was thrilled and very touched. Over the past five decades, we have been enriched by the gifts that female rabbis and female leaders have shared with us. Among them are the unique insights that women bring to Torah study. That is clearly reflected in the pages of the Women’s Torah Commentary for which we thank the Women of Reform Judaism.

This year, Ten Minutes of Torah will provide us with yet another opportunity to learn from women. My heartfelt gratitude to the Union for Reform Judaism for honoring me in this way!

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