On Shavuos, many of us will stay awake throughout the night, learning until we daven k’vasikin (pray at dawn). But as we finish our final cup of coffee and pat ourselves on the back, we should acknowledge for a moment that for many this is a weekly practice. And we should ponder, further, how unique this makes our nation.
During my first year in college, a lighthearted op-ed in the town newspaper complained that it was difficult to hire a student babysitter due to frequent breaks and vacations: mid-semester break, Thanksgiving weekend, winter vacation, reading period, post-exam break, and the list goes on. I responded with a letter to the editor, co-signed by my roommates, arguing the importance of independent research and our other efforts outside the classroom.
All of that was true, of course. But as I continued my college career, I slowly learned things covered neither in class nor the student handbook. Rules such as “9 am classes are for freshmen,” “the weekend begins on Thursday evening,” and “you need to be on the field by 4:30” were as important as any published by the school. Our schedules were augmented by sports, theater, music, the school newspaper, debating clubs, and even campus businesses. And, of course, that op-ed had a point: the weeks of classes and exams added up to barely six months of the year.
To say that going from college to yeshiva involved a culture shock is the quintessential understatement. The baseline expectation suddenly became nine to ten hours of learning every day plus 90 minutes of davening – for nine months or more each year. “Extracurricular activities” included eating, sleeping, and doing laundry.
But more than that – even in the best of colleges, the respected students are the top athletes, the editor of the newspaper, the top debater. Genius and innovation are respected, but due to talent more than dedication. In yeshiva, the greatest respect is reserved not for the natural genius, but for the student who commits himself above and beyond the norm.
It is the study of Torah that has produced a nation that excels in intellectual pursuits. Jews constitute just 0.2% of the world’s population, but over one-quarter of the winners of the Nobel and similar prizes in research fields are Jewish. From where did the Jewish people gain its phenomenal dedication to intellectual exploration and inquiry? Without recognizing the role of traditional Jewish learning, it is difficult to find an answer free of racial overtones.
But despite much-deserved admiration for scholarship in medicine and physics, Torah remains unique. Upon completing a Masechta (Tractate of Talmud) or Seder Mishnayos (Order of Mishnah), part of the “Hadran” compares Torah scholars to others. It says, “we toil and receive reward, they toil and do not receive reward.” Is that really true? Is there no compensation for other forms of “toil?”
The answer speaks to the unique nature of Torah: other fields reward not the effort, but the results. Even an hourly employee will be dismissed if the work product is considered deficient. Only in the field of Torah scholarship is the effort an end unto itself.
Nearly 30 years ago, an article in a prominent newspaper lionized yeshiva learning. It compared a yeshiva to an elite music conservatory, and asked readers to imagine the pride that they would feel if the world’s best violinists gathered in their city to practice their art 10 to 12 hours each day.
The newspaper was the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the article, written by a non-Jewish writer, concerned the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. It is a sad truth that such articles are not written by Jewish writers, whether in American Jewish community papers or in Israel. In Jewish circles, these same scholars are described as lazy, or taking too many vacations – and the material they study deemed unnecessary.
Without question, no kollel should harbor a yungerman unwilling to do the work; to do so is both dishonest and gives our detractors the ability to make absurd generalizations. But neither can we fall prey to their slanderous, sweeping judgements. The average yungerman is not merely the best of our nation in our own eyes. By any impartial standard, the intensity of his scholarship deserves admiration, respect, and our support.
This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.