For the past few months the Olympic torch has traveled around the world on its way to Beijing, China for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
In cities including Paris, London and San Francisco, the torch relay has been met by protesters representing a range of political issues: China's problematic human rights record, China's refusal to grant freedom to Tibet, and the recent military crackdown against demonstrations in Tibet.
At times, the protests forced the path of the torch relay to be altered or abbreviated. The torch was extinguished by protesters several times during the Paris leg. Shortly after the protests in Europe and North America, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge described the protests as a "crisis" for the organization.
A Different Kind of Torch
The Olympic torch relay got me thinking about another kind of torch relay that is most certainly worth great fuss -- the Torah's relay through history.
Since the revelation at Mount Sinai, 3,300 years ago, the Jewish people have passed down the Torah from parents to children, generation to generation. The Torah's flame and torch has never been extinguished.
Throughout the ages, many have been amazed at the Jewish nation's survival. Faced with a history of suffering, sorrow and persecution, Jews have met this adversity with unequalled resilience and fortitude. What is our secret? How have we maintained our distinctness and unique traditions? What has been the key to thwarting assimilation into the cultures of the nations?
The secret of Jewish survival throughout the millennia is Torah study. Learning Torah has been the torch that carries us through history. As Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote, "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."
If Jews were to ever stop learning Torah, we would cease to be a nation.
Further, the Torah unites Jews and saves us from assimilation. To paraphrase Rabbi Saadia Gaon of the 11th century, the Jewish nation is only a nation and can only be a nation as a result of the Torah. We are not a nation based on land, language or culture. If ever there would be a time when Jews would stop caring about the wisdom in the Torah, we would cease to be a nation and would quickly disappear to assimilation.
Recent Jewish history affirms this. When Jews began immigrating en masse to the United States in the early 20th century, they were looking for a new life of freedom and a higher standard of living. They quickly and successfully blended into American society, but struggled to maintain a strong Jewish identity. Jewish families who stressed Torah education were generally more successful in maintaining Jewish identity, while those who did not stress Torah education had a difficult time inspiring themselves -- and especially the next generation -- to maintain a distinct Jewish identity.
A Different Kind of Protest
It was only around 200 years ago, with the advent of free public education, that the world at large began to value universal education and literacy. Until then, education was viewed solely as a pursuit for the elite of society. Many religions had special interest in keeping the masses uneducated so as to avoid questioning in their faiths.
By contrast, universal education for Jews is ensured in the Torah commandment to study Torah every day of our lives. Of course, this study requires one to know how to read and write; the Torah itself provides for its own continuity. Torah study and intellectual pursuit was and remains our lifeblood from our very inception as a nation.
Yet, in our times, as millions of Jews are being given barely a basic Jewish education (how many have never opened the Talmud?), we are -- predictably -- losing many of those Jews to assimilation. This is largely due to a lack of Jewish education. The torch of Torah that has been carried for thousands of years is becoming diminished. So we need to form our own protest. We need to demonstrate against Torah illiteracy! But what is the best way to protest? Should we take to the streets?
The best way to protest is to increase your own Torah literacy.
The most effective way to protest is by starting from with a good long look in the mirror. After you've changed yourself, then you can try to change others.
Increase and expand your own Torah literacy. Learn more Torah and with more passion and excitement. Find a new Torah class or book that strikes your interest. Commit to a schedule of 15 minutes each day, and guard that time as sacred.
After accomplishing this, share your knowledge with others and inspire them to study more Torah as well. The more we engage in this kind of protest, the stronger the Torah's torch flame will become.
Especially on Shavuot
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes that whenever we experience a festival, we are not simply commemorating an event, but we are re-living it. Every festival is an opportunity for growth because the festival is infused with spiritual forces that were unleashed at that historical event.
On Shavuot, the Jewish people received and accepted the Torah. Thus, every year we "accept the Torah" anew, by finding ways to strengthen our commitment to Torah.
There is a custom to study Torah all night on Shavuot, to show how precious the Torah is to us, and to express our great desire to know all of God's Torah. It is only through Torah study that we, the People of the Book, can live up to our name. Only through Torah study can we truly participate in this magnificent Torah Relay that has been Jewish history. Only through Torah study can we firmly grasp the Torah torch from generations before us, and pass it along to our children -- making sure they are holding tight before we let go.