| Second Thoughts |

Having Fun?

The focus here is not on the mitzvah of giving, but on what giving can do for you


When G-d was about to give the Torah to mankind, says the well-known midrash (Shemos Rabbah 27:9), He first offered it to the nations of the world, each of whom asked what was written in it. One nation rejected it because the Torah prohibits murder, which they lived by. A second nation rejected it because the Torah prohibits theft, and they could not abide by that. A third nation refused because they could not accept prohibitions regarding idolatry. And so it went, until G-d asked the Jews. They did not inquire about the Torah’s contents, but without hesitation declared naaseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will obey.”

It is our good fortune that G-d did not tell the nations that the Torah is fun, because they might have accepted it, and then there would have been no Am Yisrael.

The catalyst for this irreverent thought is the use of the word “fun” when referring to Talmud study. For example, we are now and then urged to attend this or that Torah learning program or participate in some mitzvah because it is stimulating, fascinating — and fun.

Now, learning Gemara is many things. It is exhilarating, rewarding, and geshmak (Yiddish for tasty and delicious). But it can also be very complex, requiring utmost focus and concentration. Ultimately, if one stays the course, it can be very satisfying, as it has been through the centuries. It is many things, but one thing it is not is “fun.”

Torah study, first and foremost, is not just another intellectual endeavor. It is a mitzvah, and in the hierarchy of mitzvos, it stands at the top, k’neged kulam. It is one of the three pillars on which the world stands (Avos I:2).We are required to study it even if, rarely, it might seem on the surface boring: Kodshim as well as Nezikin, Uktzin as well as Avos. That young man, all alone in the beis midrash at midnight, grappling with a complicated section of Gemara, finds it challenging, engrossing, satisfying — but certainly not “fun.”

Clearly, those who are enthusiastic about such programs wish to bring others in, and therefore use contemporary language — and “fun” is today’s multi-purpose word, the standard by which all of life is measured. But somehow their fervor gets the better of them. For to call Gemara “fun” is in a way to demote it, to place it alongside other fun activities like bowling, card playing, or Internet watching. For while Torah will certainly make you feel good and enhance life in every way, it will not remove wrinkles or brighten your smile. In fact, the focus of Torah study is not what it does for me — which is the focus of all things today — but, instead, how it reflects the will of G-d through His Torah.

One finds similar devaluing tendencies in today’s industrialized tzedakah, which has also been infiltrated by commercial crassness. Just as Hollywood stars endorse the power of a Mercedes, so do well-known rabbinic figures endorse the power of certain tzedakahs to help you financially. Thus, for example, wear our Smartwatch and reap healthy rewards; give to this tzedakah and your shidduch prayers will be answered.

The focus here is not on the mitzvah of giving, but on what giving can do for you. Certainly this technique raises huge funds for tzedakah, but a price is paid: Madison Avenue has been ushered into the holy domain of mitzvos: the counsel of Antigonos in Avos I:3 not to serve G-d in hopes of a reward is being overlooked.(We leave “bishvil sheyichyeh bni, tzaddik gamur” for another column.)

Face it: we live in the age of Me and we must use the weapons of today. If fun brings people to Torah learning, perhaps that is a necessary first step — as long as we realize that it is only the first rung on the ladder. Mitoch shelo lishmah, ba lishmah, say the Sages (Pesachim 50b).

That is, as we continue to grow in the stimulating, refreshing, fascinating, engrossing uplifting, challenging geshmak of Talmud Torah, and joyfully become part of the discipline of the Daily Daf, we will gradually be ushered into the majestic realm of Torah study for its own sake, lishmah.

By all means, a bit of fun is part of life, but it’s best to save it for the playground.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 960)

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