It is traditional on Shavuot to stay up all night learning Torah. Why? Because this is a declaration of priority: Torah is worth staying up all night for!!
Torah study is regarded as the most important of all mitzvot, because it opens the door for observance of the other mitzvot. Says the Talmud (Shabbat 127a): "The study of Torah is equal to the sum total of all other mitzvot
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, in his book "On Judaism" (Shaar Press 1994), beautifully explains the importance of Torah study:
Study of Torah is a specific mitzvah in Deut. 6:7 (which we recite daily in the Shema): "You shall teach them diligently to your children" -- which directs us to transmit Torah to the next generation... "and you shall speak of them (words of Torah) while you sit at home, while you walk on the way, when you go to bed and when you get up" -- which directs us to study the Torah ourselves. This need to devote ourselves to knowing the Torah, to work at it, to strive to comprehend it, to give it first priority -- is repeated over and over again throughout the Bible...
Our history demonstrates that the moment study of Torah is neglected, assimilation of the Jewish people into its surroundings makes its inroad. Without fail, every Jewish community in history that did not teach and study Torah as its first priority gradually disappeared from the scene.
Beyond all the good, rational reasons, Torah is the mysterious bridge which connects the Jew and God, across which they interact and communicate, and by means of which God fulfills His covenant with His people to sustain them and protect them
It is therefore no surprise that Torah study is so central with us. It is the first blessing a newborn child receives: "May he grow up to Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to good deeds." The prayer book is filled with petitions to God to help us understand His Torah...
This explains why, in a traditional Jewish community, the one who is looked up to and most admired is the scholar of Torah -- not the entertainer, or the athlete...
When we study Torah, we are not studying an abstract and arcane text of the ancient world. We are studying the way in which God wants us to live on this earth... (We) are in fact engaged in discovering the essence of Judaism, which is to say, the essence of ourselves...
LIKE A FISH OUT OF WATER
Throughout the ages, Jews have endured tremendous self-sacrifice rather than forfeit Torah study. The Talmud describes the fate of Rebbe Akiva:
In the first century, the Romans tried to obliterate Judaism and made the study of Torah illegal. Rebbe Akiva could not bear the idea of abandoning Torah, so he gathered together his disciples and taught them Torah. Pappus ben Yehuda came and found Rebbe Akiva teaching Torah publicly. He asked: "Akiva, are you not afraid of the government
Rebbe Akiva replied: "I will explain to you with a parable:"
A fox was once walking alongside a river, and he saw the fish going in swarms from one place to another. The fox said to them: "From what are you fleeing?"
The fish replied: "From the fishermen's nets."
The fox said: "Would you like to come onto dry land?"
The fish replied: "Are you the one that they call the cleverest of animals? You are foolish! If we are afraid in the element where we live, how much more so in the element where we would die!"
Rebbe Akiva explained: "So too with Jews. It is written: '[The Torah] is your life and the length of your days.' If we neglect it, how much worse off will we be
Soon afterwards, Rebbe Akiva was arrested and thrown into prison, and Pappus ben Yehuda was also arrested and imprisoned next to him. Rebbe Akiva said: "Pappus, what are you doing here?" He replied: "Fortunate are you, Akiva, that you have been seized for busying yourself with the Torah! Woe to Pappus who has been seized for busying himself with idle things!"
The Romans executed Rebbe Akiva by brutally tearing the skin off his body with iron forks. As he was being tortured, Rebbe Akiva joyously recited the Shema -- "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."
His bewildered students asked, "Rebbe, how can you praise God amidst such torture?"
Replied Rebbe Akiva: "All my life I believed that a person has to give 100 percent to God. Now that I have the opportunity, I joyously perform it!"
Of course Rebbe Akiva wanted to live. But for him, life without Torah was not worth living. It is like expecting a fish to live without water. As the Talmud reports: "A voice rang out from Heaven and proclaimed: 'Fortunate are you, Akiva, who died while uttering the Shema.'
In fact, the Torah is the essence of the Jewish people, our very life and soul. Without it we literally have no existence.