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SURROUNDED BY TORAH

Roy Neuberger - Apr. 27, 2018


“Does a non-Jew really understand the pleasures of this world? Did he ever wake up a few hours before sunrise, drink a hot coffee, and then, with a clear mind, study Torah without interruption for two hours, followed by immersion in a hot mikveh as preparation for an inspired, fiery davening? Does he have any idea of the true pleasures of this world?”

(Ksav Sofer, as quoted in the book, Rav Pam on the Haftaros, Page 161)

 

I identify with these words. To me, early morning is the best time. It is still dark; the world is quiet; one’s mind is clear. At what other time can one study Torah “without interruption?” I identify with everything in this beautiful description, including the hot coffee!

 

A clear mind is precious! In this frenetic world, the Satan presents countless distractions. Technology was supposed to serve us, but it has confused us. One needs a lifetime just to understand the instruction manuals!

 

In the darkness before dawn, the Torah shines a light before us which illuminates the entire day. “Uri kvodi … Awake my soul, awake oh lyre and harp. I shall awaken the dawn!” (Psalm 57:9) This is when King David’s soul reached the heights. “In the evening one lies down weeping, but – with the dawn – a cry of joy!” (Psalm 30)

 

One of the beauties of early morning is the mikveh. This week we learn, “Aharon shall come to the Tent of Meeting…. He shall immerse himself in the water in a sacred place and don his vestments ….” (Leviticus 16:23-24) Furthermore, “No person may enter the [Temple] Courtyard for service, even if he is pure, until he immerses [himself in a mikveh]. The High Priest performs five immersions and ten sanctifications on the day [of Yom Kippur] ….” (Yoma 30a)

 

The other day, when I was actually in the mikveh, its unique quality suddenly became so clear to me. It is not an innovation to say this, but sometimes the obvious is so powerful. When you are in the mikveh, you are totally surrounded. You are not aware of anything but water. All is quiet, because water blocks sound. There is no sight; my eyes, anyway, are closed in the mikveh. As in the womb, one is submerged in warmth and security, protection and comfort. As the Ksav Sofer put it, this is one of the “true pleasures of this world.”

 

Because of the mikveh, we can understand the concept of being surrounded by the Ocean of Torah. “Water can be [interpreted as signifying] nothing other than Torah, as it is said, ‘Ho! Everyone that is thirsty go to the water.’” (Bava Kamma 17a) In the mikveh one can feel vividly the sensation of being surrounded by Torah. That is why it makes so much sense to immerse in the mikveh before that “inspired, fiery davening.”

 

Incidentally, the most beautiful mikveh I ever saw was in the Syrian Sephardic community in Mexico City. The water was pure like a coral reef. You felt you could drink it. The attendant hands you a warm towel and slippers as you enter. This would be indulgence if it weren’t “preparation for an inspired, fiery davening” and a day filled with Torah.

 

Today we have no Temple and no Altar. “Both Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar said: The entire time that the Temple was standing, the Altar would atone for Israel. But now [that the Temple has been destroyed], a man’s table atones for him.” (Berachos 55a) Thus it is that the utensils upon our tables also must pass through the waters of the mikveh.

 

If we are to try to come close to Hashem, we have to be surrounded by Torah. We say “Shema, Yisroel, Hashem Elokainu, Hashem Echad …G-d is One.” What does “echad” mean? Hashem is Everything, Hashem is All There Is! There is nothing else! Everything in the cosmos is created by and is part of Hashem. That is why it is so absurd to rebel against Him, because … who are we anyhow? We are part of Hashem! How can one rebel against Him?

 

Someone asked me, after a lecture, how I feel about trying to become closer to G-d through a strictly intellectual approach. I personally was never persuaded by an intellectual approach, because Hashem is completely beyond our intellect. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis a”h used to tell us, “You have to get a Jew to do a mitzvah before you can reach him.” A mitzvah expands the soul and then the questions go away by themselves.

 

I will never forget the (Jewish!) missionary who tried to get Rebbetzin Jungreis to convert to his “religion” some forty years ago. It was just before Shabbos, and she was at the Pineview Hotel in the Catskills. She said to him, “Just stay for Shabbos and then we’ll talk.” He stayed. When Shabbos was over, there was nothing to talk about.

 

Shabbos is a mikveh. You are surrounded by Torah. “Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokainu, Hashem Echad.” Hashem is One. Hashem is everything. “Ain od milvado … there is nothing else beside Him.” In this world of falsehood, we all need to know there is no safety except to surround ourselves with the living waters of Torah.

 

“Moshe said to the people, ‘Do not fear! Stand fast and see the salvation of Hashem that He will perform for you today’ …. And the Children of Israel shall come into the midst of the sea ….” (Exodus 14:13ff) In these shrill and tense moments, as we near the culmination of world history, let us be comforted by the thought that, soon, “the knowledge of G-d (will fill) the world as the sea fills the ocean bed.” (Isaiah 11:9)


 

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