“Honey and Milk Under Your Tongue”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Because of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, the analyses this week will focus on the festival theme of “Torah” rather than on this week’s parasha, parashat Naso.

One of the widely held customs of Shavuot is the practice of eating dairy foods, at least on the first day of the festival. Many reasons are given for this custom. According to the Midrash, when the baby Moses was drawn from the water, reputedly on the 6th of Sivan, he refused to nurse from any non-Jewish woman. In commemoration, we eat dairy foods on that day. Rabbi Shimshon of Ostropol (Chassidic leader, 17th century, Ukraine) notes that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters for milk–chalav–add up to 40, corresponding to the 40 days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai. However, a more popular source for the custom derives from a verse in the book of Song of Songs 4:11 that reads: “D’vash v’chalav tach’aht l’sho’naych,” Honey and milk are under your tongue. While in the actual biblical text, the handsome shepherd speaks these words to his beloved maiden, the rabbis translate the verse metaphorically, stating that the words of one who gains knowledge of Torah are as tasteful as honey and milk.

It is not at all surprising that our rabbis compare the relationship of the People of Israel and Torah to a love affair between a handsome shepherd and a beautiful maiden. After all, the intensity of the Jews’ relationship to Torah is rather remarkable.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Beit Midrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ, known popularly as Lakewood Yeshiva. Lakewood Yeshiva may very well be the largest yeshiva in the world, perhaps even the largest yeshiva that has ever existed, with 5,000 adult students. It was a magnificent, in fact, flawless, sunny day. The blossoms of spring were blooming throughout the neighborhood. Not one student was outside sunning or lounging. The central Beit Midrash, the cavernous main study hall that I visited, was filled with 1100 young men totally focused on Torah. It was, to the say the least, breathtaking. The scene brought to mind the poetry of Chaim Nachman Bialik. In his poem “Im Yesh Et Nafshecha Lada’at,” Bialik declares: If you really want to know the source of Jewish survival, then go to the Beit Midrash and see the ardor and the commitment of the students in the study hall.

It is difficult to convey to an outsider the “magic” of Torah, and its mystical power to keep young, restless students attracted for so many years. After all, these studies do not result in formal degrees or professional licenses that might increase future earning power. It is, however, a source of eternal instruction and wisdom that will help these students live and flourish as Jews.

Is it possible to convey the special nature of Torah to an outsider, to one who has never spent time in a Beit Midrash or a yeshiva?

Rabbi Mayer Shapiro (1887-1933) was one of the great Jewish leaders of the early 20th century. In 1924 he founded Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, a yeshiva in Eastern Poland, that produced many famous rabbis and scholars. He is, however, best known for introducing the Daf HaYomi, the 7 ½ year cycle of the daily study of one page of the Babylonian Talmud, a program that has exploded in popularity over the past two decades. It’s estimated that some 100,000 Jewish people, mostly men and some women, study the Daf HaYomi Talmud page every single day.

From where does the passion for Torah stem?

Rabbi Mayer Shapiro was born into a family of moderate means. In his hometown it was not customary to send children away to study in large yeshivot. Parents often took upon themselves the primary responsibility of educating their children by retaining the services of tutors who lived with the family, and would go home only for holidays.

One morning, soon after the Passover holiday had concluded, Rabbi Mayer awoke to the sound of his mother’s prayers and crying. She was pouring out her heart to G-d that the tutor who had studied with her young Mayer before the Passover holiday would return from vacation to teach her son. After all, he was already a day late. She was particularly concerned that the tutor might never return because the family was not in a position to pay him a higher salary. Little Mayer tried to calm his mother by telling her that, “It’s only one day.” Rav Mayer Shapiro’s mother refused to be comforted, saying, that the loss of one day is like the loss of something precious that can never be retrieved.

His mother’s tears left a lasting impression on young Mayer. He vowed never to waste time, perhaps accounting for his many great accomplishments in his relatively short life.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), perhaps the greatest Talmud teacher of the 20th century, describes that as a little boy he would sit on his bed at night listening to his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik (1879-1941), study with his students. As part of the Soloveitchik tradition, it was customary to focus on the works of the Rambam, (Maimonides, 1135-1204, great Spanish Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician) trying to explain how Maimonides understood the Talmudic text, as opposed to other commentators. Little Joseph heard his father speak of the Rambam as if he were in the room, saying, “Rabbeinu Moshe, why have you taken this approach? After all, the other commentators seemed to explain the text more logically?” Together with their teacher, the students would strive to present a comprehensive argument justifying Maimonides’ interpretation over the others.

Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that when he heard the arguing, he often perceived that the Rambam was under enemy attack, and that the Rambam’s only defender was his father. Young Joseph was concerned about what would happen to the Rambam without his father to defend him. Most often, Maimonides emerged triumphant, and Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik’s face would fill with happiness and delight. Little Joseph would jump up from bed, run to his mother and cry out the good news, “Mother, mother, the Rambam won…look how wonderful my father is!”

But once in a great while, his father did not succeed to elucidate Maimonides’ words. The enemies of the Rambam had in fact defeated him. The students and little Joseph waited for his father to defend the Rambam, but his father would raise his head in surrender and state, “There is no answer. The words of the Rambam are difficult. No one is capable of resolving these questions.” Both teacher and students left with a feeling of despondence.

Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:

With a broken heart I would walk slowly to my mother and cry out to her: ‘Mother, Father cannot answer the Rambam. What will he do? He did not succeed today.’

And my mother would tell me: ‘Don’t worry. Father will find an answer to the Rambam. If he does not succeed, then when you grow up, perhaps you will find an answer to the Rambam. Always remember, my son, the important thing about Torah is to study it in happiness and enthusiasm.’

Those who engage in the study of Torah know that studying Torah is like drinking mother’s milk. It is the elixir of life. It is the vital ingredient for both those who had the good fortune of being nurtured on Torah from their youth, as well as those who were introduced to Torah later in life. Whether scholar or novice, it is important that all Jews redouble their commitment to Torah to ensure a Jewish future.

On this festival of Shavuot, let us thank G-d for the great gift He has given us, and embrace Torah even more fervently than ever before.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Shavuot is celebrated on Tuesday evening, May 22nd and continues through Thursday night, May 24th 2007.

Chag Shavuot Samayach.