Like many other words in Hebrew, the word ‘learning’ implies action. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that while the Greeks study in order to understand, the Hebrews study in order to revere. Hopefully our learning and studying will help us revere and be in awe of what He has done for us.
Some days later my husband gave me a booklet to read ‘Let Judah Go Up First’ by Roy Blizzard. Again, what would some of you think from the title?
The booklet was subtitled “a study in praise, prayer and worship,” which may better help answer the question. The booklet got me thinking and I saw a connection between healthy Torah learning and Letting Judah Go Up First, which is what I would like to share in this article. My intent is two-fold which I hope will unfold as we learn together.
First some Torah learning: There are command words in Hebrew which have a different structure. These are not a ‘maybe’ or a ‘please’ or a ‘would you/could you’ word. 3 commands are in the first chapter of Genesis/Bereshit: Yehi ohr: Let there be light (vs. 3) Yikavu ha’mayim: Let the water be gathered (vs. 9) and Tad-she ha’eretz deshe: Let the earth grow grass (vs. 11). Later we read to remember, zachor, the Shabbat. And one we will delve into more closely in a bit is ‘give thanks’ Hodu. How many recognize the word from a song taken from Psalm 136: “Hodu L’Adonai ki tov”? It is not only “it is good to give thanks to the Lord;” it is a command to give thanks to the Lord. In Psalm 136 we are to give thanks for:
½ His everlasting lovingkindness
½ His creation: the earth, stars, great lights, sun, moon
½ Smoting the Egyptians
½ Bringing Israel out of Egypt and overthrowing Pharaoh and his army
½ Slaying many kings
½ Being One who remembered us in our low estate
½ He Who gives food
But, what does this have to do with ‘Healthy Torah Learning’ and ‘Letting Judah Go Up First’? According to Rambam, a wise scholar from 1135-1204 CE, we are held more responsible for things we are to know or figure out. A person below the age of thirteen is held responsible for things he can figure out while an older person with a good aptitude for learning is held responsible for more.
If God gives us a command, say ‘remember’ then we are to ask for wisdom as to how to put it into action. Granted there are hidden things which belong to God but there are revealed things that belong to us. (Deut. 29:29) This passage is reinforced in 30:11 that ‘the commandment is not too difficult for us, nor is it out of reach’. God wishes to give us wisdom (Psalm 51:6). Shaul even talks about a wisdom, predestined before the ages that was given by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:6).
Therefore we are given wisdom as to how to do His commands, such as remembering the Sabbath when we put away all secular music, secular TV, work, etc by sunset Friday so we can rest, and show up to worship the Lord collectively.
So we see that we are given help via the Word – both written and living – and the Holy Spirit to learn what we need to know. Does the learning necessarily come easy? How many would agree that we have more of an appreciation for learning when we know the depth it took to acquire that knowledge? What is required for the nurse, the doctor, the plumber, the musician to be good at his task? At first sight do we appreciate all the work involved? One recent analogy I heard was that in a physical sense one can walk up a mountain to catch a glimpse of the view it affords only to see hikers still further along on a more distant path, climbing higher still. The hiker then appreciates their effort, knowing what effort it took on his part to get where he is.
While some seem to learn from intellectual to experimental, for example; first reading a manual then trying it, others do the opposite; experimental to intellectual. For example, in Exodus 24, when the people heard God’s voice on Mt Sinai they said, ‘All the words which the Lord hath said will we do’, ‘We will hear it and do it’ (Deut. 5:27). Was this going from Experimental to Intellectual or reverse? Perhaps it does not matter as long as we get to our goal of hitting the mark. Would we want to dawdle or just rush to the finish, perhaps even stumbling blindly? I would hope we want to get there in a timely fashion without a lot of mistakes along the way.
Again, how does this relate to Healthy Torah learning and Letting Judah Go Up First? For that we will take a look at the word praise or thanks. In the Torah we can find many words: halal, barach, tehillah, gadal which all can be used for praise. But I want to focus on yada, from which we get toda, when one says ‘thank you’ and hodu, used in Psalm 136 ‘give thanks’. Yada refers to prayer as well as praise and literally means ‘to throw’ or ‘to cast’ as we have a related word yad which is ‘hand’.
This word hodu had me stumped as it was not in the command form I had learned so I wrote to Uri Harel at the Center for Biblical Hebrew http://www.c-bh.com and he shared this: “From this root also comes "hed", the Hebrew word for echo. In both cases we can visualize a movement bouncing away from us. It is to teach us that giving thanks happens exclusively when we receive the message. Just as a sound wave hits and then bounces back, only when we understand the blessing can we then reply with gratitude.”
The root yada also means to confess or declare the attributes of God. There is the belief that as we confess/praise/give thanks for the attributes of God we will begin to recognize the lack of such in our lives and confess our sins, which can once again cause us to give thanks, yada for his mercy.
According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament: “In the OT.. there is as yet no verb that means only “to thank”. Hodah, which is usually translated as “to thank” is not used in the OT a single time for an expression of thanks between men. Thus it is clear from the start that this hodah cannot be equated with our “to thank” which can be directed equally to God and to man.” The use of ‘thank’ taking place between men is with the verb berek and means bless. Thanks to God is in praise.”
So again, what does this have to do with Healthy Torah Learning and Letting Judah Go Up First? Let’s look at 2 more passages in scripture. Yeshua in Matthew 5 said: ‘Ashrey (or blessed/happy) are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ How can one be happy who is poor in spirit?
The Qumran people, writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls called themselves poor in spirit. David in Ps 32:1-2 says “Happy/Ashrey is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is pardoned. Happy is the man unto whom the Lord counteth not iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no guile. When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long…My vitality was drained away as with the fever of summer. I acknowledged my sin to Thee and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” And Thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.”
So the answer to what this all has to do with Healthy Torah Learning and Letting Jacob Go Up First is that giving praise, offering confession, not only for the wonders God has wrought but also offering confession for your sins will make us healthy for Torah learning. And to substantiate that look at Judges 1:1-2. “And it came to pass after the death of Joshua, that the children of Israel asked of the Lord, saying: Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them? And who would you suggest, the strongest, the one with the largest army, the most weapons? No, “And the Lord said: Judah shall go up first; behold, I have delivered the land into his hand.”
Again in Judges 20:18, “And the children of Israel arose, and went up to Bethel, and asked counsel of God; and they said: Who shall go up for us first to battle against the children of Benjamin? And the Lord said: Judah shall go up first.”
And why Judah? Think of the word Judah from the same root yada in Hebrew, what does it mean? PRAISE Most of you probably know that giving thanks is good for the soul but did you know that it is also what we need to overcome our enemies.
In the beginning I said my talk was two-fold, the first being that giving yada, praise and confession is not only good for our health, but necessary to overcome our enemy. The unfolding of this concept leads us to giving thanks for our body. How many struggle with being too tired to study Torah, too tired to pray, too tired to do mitzvot/deeds?
For some the body may be something you battle with daily, trying to keep it under control. And for that I would first like to offer, give praise. Give praise for this wonderful gift. Appreciate all it does to enable you to have a much fuller life: eyes to see His beauty, lips to sing His praise, ears to hear others’ pain and joy, hands to feed the needy, a sense of smell for the good and for the bad such as a fire.
So hang with me a few minutes more and let it be an exercise for the brain. Let’s take a look at how can we show our thanks for our body. We just read that giving thanks to God means giving praise, so how do you give praise for your body?
I would like to share a quote by Reform Rabbi W Gunther Plaut and Mark Washofsky in their book Teshuvot (Responsa) for the Nineties. Quote “According to halacha (Jewish Law) we have stewardship rather than ownership of the body given to us by our creator and therefore may not jeopardize our life.” As an example, when tobacco use first became popular sometime in the early 1600s, the rabbis’ responsa, a Hebrew term given to answers to specific questions concerning Jewish law by rabbis of old on the commands, was that tobacco was a healthful substance. Now, as science has shown that it causes a great many health problems, the responsa is different.
Our bodies are the temple, the tangible, concrete thing which houses the brain which is the house of the ideas and is the dwelling place for our spirit which is as abstract as we can imagine. We have a prayer in I Thess 5:23: ‘that spirit, soul and body be preserved complete and without blame.’ So how? Some examples I found:
Ø By listening to His judgments and keeping them He has promised that he will remove all sickness (Deut. 7:15).
Ø By learning what defiles the body such as unclean foods (Lev. 11:44), a misuse of the tongue, using the body for fornication/adultery (I Cor 6:18), lying man with man, lusts. These do not feed the soul (Romans 6:12).
Ø By watching what you eyes take in. (Matt 6:22).
Ø Dressing appropriately. (Matt 6:25).
Ø The use of proper ointments on the body
Ø Not pushing it past its limits… Jacob considered this in respect with his family when he let them go at their pace.
Rambam, the scholar in the 12th century, also wrote that one should exercise, and that this prevents disease (Hilkhoth De’oth 4:19 or 4:14 in Vilna ed.). This is also common sense – and it should surprise no one that common sense and God’s Torah coincide. Shaul tells us in I Cor. 9:24-27 that if we run in a race there are many in that race and only one receives the prize so run that you may win. You do this by having control of your body, not it having control over you. And though Shaul may have used the body metaphorically we can see a simile for we need our bodies to do what the gospel requires which according to Shaul is what he does all things for, that being for the gospel. Rom 12:1 “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Once again, out of the practice of worship and praise one will take care of his body.
Years ago I came across the acronym NEWSTART: N-nutrition E-exercise W-water, internally and externally, S-sunshine, T-temperance in all things, A-air, R-rest, and T-trust in God’s divine intervention. To me, this is a wonderful code to keep us balanced.
Another ‘code of ethics’ I have tried to live by since the early 70’s is one from Pythagoras, "Choose what is best: custom will make it agreeable and easy."
Sometimes we run on manual, sometimes automatic. Many of our vital organs run on automatic; liver, heart, pituitary, etc. How many times though have you been riding in a car and realized you had been driving a bit on automatic. Not the best. Yet it appears much of the world runs on automatic. But if one would like to take a picture they can do more with a manual camera than an automatic if they take time to study the manual which will help refine and define the subject matter. With skill and knowledge found in the manual one can take beautiful pictures. With this in mind I would like to think of our bodies of running on automatic with us using the manual to take care of our bodies in a most righteous way. How do we do this? There are health periodicals, books, there are doctors. There is the Holy Spirit to guide us in our searching. First let Judah go up by praising God for your body, confessing/yada that you have not always done right by it, then ask for wisdom.
There are major and auxiliary parts and both must work together. We have a brain which by learning the correct and efficient way can help the body accomplish its task with less wear and tear. Thereby minor parts can become major and vice versa.
If one pays more for a car that has smooth running parts, in the long run he will pay less. The smooth running parts mean less friction, better calibration. This is the way with our bodies. If we truly want to give thanks, we will learn how we are calibrated and feed the system to run well. Remember we said Psalm 136 commands us to give thanks for the food He has given us. How many give thanks for whole grains vs. white, for fresh fruit vs. a sugary piece of candy?
Some, for example in strict monasteries think that the body is to be punished as it is a hindrance to this world, but does God want our sacrifices or our good deeds. Did He give us a body to destroy or to use? To hate or to love?
There is a story of an ascetic Jew from Jerusalem who deprived his body for Hashem. He sought the advice of a rebbe as to how to serve God upon which the rebbe replied, “No greater gratitude than to take care of your body that God has given you.”
In the Gemara, which is a word derived from study or learning and is a book containing Rabbinical commentaries we find that a person should look at himself as if he has a holy man deep inside and is lowering food down inside to him. And so we should ask: what will you lower, for surely he is worth eating.
I Cor. 6:19 confirms this, “..do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God and that you are not your own.”
Taking care of our bodies is not for vanity. With strong healthy bodies we can give thanks to help feed homeless in the park, to do kind deeds for elderly neighbors, help a motorist change a flat tire, play with the grandchildren, take care of our aging parents, have energy to study His word.
While in Arizona I had a revelation of sorts that I needed to seek more of God’s entertainment and less of man’s. How could I praise Him for such gifts in nature if I did not avail myself of them? So the next morning my husband and I got up early to walk in the Botanical gardens. While walking along the path someone stopped to tell us to continue on where we would see the best bloom of night flowers in 11 years. Now these flowers only bloom one night a year and we just happened to be there early enough to see them before they died. What a gift.
When we were back in Colorado I again wished to see more of His creation and found time to hike in Aspen and Telluride with family. The flowers were out and we saw two large elk herds traveling with their babies. By going the extra mile God blessed us with incredible views of His creation.
Praise to Him. It would not have been possible if He had not given me the time, which I thank Him for, but it would also had not been possible if I had not prepared for the ‘race’ so to speak by doing right by my body. I do not have the answers to good health, only that we must seek it and He, who gives to all, will show us what is good.
Do not lose sight of the goal which is to serve him with heart, nefesh/soul and m’odeka/might. Borrowing on another of Shaul’s metaphors, there are many parts of the body, therefore let all of us honor Him by helping each other attain our purpose.
I hope that this talk will have encouraged you to seek a healthy learning of Torah by doing right by your body so you apply it the best you can for study. Remember to let Judah go up first by praising God for all things, confessing your weaknesses, stretching out your hand to receive His help and lending a helping hand to your neighbor.
HODU L’ADONAI KI TOV—GIVE THANKS TO THE LORD FOR HE IS GOOD.