Neglecting the Torah

ashamnuBy David Kasher

This afternoon, Jews all over the world will utter the first of ten recitations of the confessional prayer that recurs throughout the Yom Kippur liturgy. The basic Ashkenazi version begins with these words:

“Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu,…”

In the Hebrew, the list follows the order of the alphabet – Aleph, Bet, Gimel – as if to suggest that we have run the gamut of sins, from beginning to end. The English translation of these first three is: “We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen….”  These are pretty broad categories, one per letter.

But in some Sefardic editions of the confessional, the list is fleshed out further by adding additional, more specific transgressions for each letter. And in this version, there in the second group – that is, under the ‘Bet‘s – is a sin that looms very large in some Jewish communities, and bears little notice in others:

Bitalnu Torah

“We have…”  it’s hard to translate literally… “nullified Torah”“wasted Torah”? The best sense of the phrase, rendered in English, might be “We have neglected the Torah.” This concept – Bitul Torah – stands for the notion that not only does one have the obligation to study Torah, but in fact, whatever free time one has ought to be spent studying Torah. Any moment spent on more frivolous things is a moment wasted – and in that moment the Torah itself has been wasted.

Now, in the world of the traditional yeshivaBitul Torah is just about the ultimate sin. Students will pore over the Talmud for hours and hours a day, pausing only to eat, pray, or sleep. All other activities are considered trivial or vain when stacked up against the possibility of more Torah. You’re telling me you have the opportunity to immerse deeply in the Word of God for another two hours… and you’re going to go to a movie instead?! Bitul Torah! Indeed, the palpable fervor and devotion in these halls of sacred study is often fueled by a fear of transgressing the terrible sin of Bitul Torah.

This religious attitude, however, is easily critiqued. Could it be that God really wanted us to do nothing with our time but study? What about going out to appreciate the natural world – isn’t that also a Divine Creation, after all? What about the exquisite, sometimes transcendent beauty of music and art and literature – were we really given such remarkable powers of creativity for nothing? And what about just going out to have a good time with friends, laughing and telling stories – is a good religion really incompatible with fun?

In fact, the great scholars of the Torah themselves – the rabbis – seem in many places to undermine the notion that Torah study ought to be an all-encompassing pursuit. They encourage combining Torah with what they call ‘Derech Eretz,’ literally, ‘The Way of the World.’ Learning the ways – and wonders – of the world is as important as studying sacred texts. In fact, a famous saying in the Jerusalem Talmud even says that, “A person will have to give justification and accounting for any delight he saw but did not partake of.” (Kiddushin 4:12) Justification and accounting! This language is strikingly appropriate for the Yom Kippur confession – and here the “sin” could result from studying too much Torah, and missing out on the other joys of life!

If a fear of Bitul Torah can go overboard, however, it is also true that those of us who live outside of the yeshiva  – out here in the “real world” – often do not take the possibility of neglecting the Torah seriously enough. Are we engaged in regular study of our wisdom tradition? Do we know enough to pass that tradition on to the next generation? And – most importantly – can we honestly say that we have an appreciation of the depth and beauty of these words that are the foundation stones of a culture that has been searing with fiery intellect and pulsing with passion for thousands of years? Are we truly relishing in our Torah… or are we neglecting it?

And this concept of Bitul Torah is valuable to us in on an even grander scale. For the word ‘Torah’ does not only refer to the Five Books of Moses; not even only to the canon of sacred Jewish literature. The word ‘Torah,’ in our tradition, also stands for the highest levels of Wisdom, of Truth, of Justice, of Compassion, and of Communion with the Divine.

Now, let us ask ourselves, are we spending enough of our time in pursuit of these ideals? Are we living lives of enough meaning and purpose? Are we manifesting what Torah represents in the world through acts of kindness and work for a more just society?

Or are we neglecting these sacred tasks? Are we wasting our time on more foolish, frivolous things? If so, let us confess tonight, with the congregation:

Bitalnu Torah… We have neglected the Torah.

And let us not waste another moment.

Rabbi David Kasher is Senior Rabbinic Educator at Kevah.org.