Often on zoom, I get comments about the number of books that line my dining room shelves they see in the background of my screen.
It piqued my interest how many people nowadays read books. After a cursory online search, it turns out that people, especially children, are not reading as much as in previous generations. The obvious culprit: technology. A secondary culprit is parents. Some studies link children’s reading habits with their parents, and in homes where the parents are readers, the children are more likely to be readers.
What I find difficult is that with technology, people may be reading fewer hard copies of books. Still, if anything, people have more access to books than ever before and are, in fact, actually doing more reading online, with google searches, tweets, Facebook etc.
According to an article in Forbes by Jordan Shapiro, a more accurate assessment would be that people aren’t reading with the same rigour. People don’t read books anymore- they listen to the audio or read a summary of it, and it all starts with the parents.
In this week’s Parsha, the Torah’s opening words are, “Im bechokotai Telechu vet mitzvotai tishmeru etc.” – “If in My statutes you go, and My commandments you guard etc. (Vayikra 26:3).” Then the passuk continues; wealth, prosperity, peace, and many other blessings will come to us if we observe His instructions.
But these two instructions seem redundant. The meaning of “guarding the Commandments” is clear, the fulfillment of the Mitzvot, But what does “to go in My statutes” refer to? What other service of G-d is there to do if one is already performing His Mitzvot?
Rash”i, who is bothered by this question, cites the Midrash, that this is a directive: “Shetihyu amelim ba’Torah” – “to toil in the Torah.” This, too, needs explanation. Why didn’t the Midrash simply say to study the Torah or to know the Torah? What does it even mean to toil in Torah?
Rabbi Reuven Leuchter, a well-known and respected Torah scholar and educator in Israel addresses the difference between the search for knowledge in other fields and the nature of Torah study. The curious student has an appetite for knowledge and seeks to acquire masses of information. Torah study, on the other hand, is a highly interactive activity. The goal is not only to think about the material in front of you but to contrast that material with your thoughts on the subject. It requires you to have the courage to be wrong, understand why you’re wrong, and allow the Divine words to teach you the truths of the Torah.
The Internet is an excellent source of information, but it is built to fulfill our curiosity. One link from Google leads to an interesting article or video, which links to a related Facebook post, and the news feed of your 2500 “friends.” Two hours later, you find yourself watching an adorable Tik Tok video of skateboarding kittens, the original object of your search already forgotten. Admittedly, a self-disciplined student’s web research will perhaps be more successful, but it remains an entirely different form of study than serious, focused toil in Torah.
Learning Torah is always commendable, but each person is required to push himself to learn at an appropriate level. With the many Torah learning opportunities available to us, we have to make an honest assessment of whether these opportunities represent “amelut” – actual toil for us. Our “amelut” rigour to toil – helps us retain the information and impacts how our children experience learning. True “toil in Torah” provides us with the tools and insight to live a life of accomplishment and meaning.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay