August 7, 2018

A Torah diet and an olive tree (Tetzaveh)

Around six months ago we were blessed to purchase a house in Israel, and among the trees that the previous owner had planted in the garden is a pomelo, pomegranate & olive tree. When we moved in, all of these trees looked stunning with their green leaves and bountiful produce. But then autumn & winter came. Both the pomelo and pomegranate tree dropped their fruit and shed their leaves. They remained bare and apparently lifeless. Not so the olive tree! As an evergreen, the olive tree remained covered with its rich dark green leaves throughout the winter, conveying a message of vibrancy, colour and life. But what has this to do with the parsha?

Well, Parshat Tetzaveh begins with the instruction to use olive oil to kindle the Menorah in the Mishkan, ‘to keep the lamp continually burning’ (Shemot 27:20), so perhaps we can suggest that there is a connection between the ‘ever-green’ nature of the olive tree, and the duty to keep the Menorah ‘ever-burning’. In fact, such a connection is offered by the Ben Ish Chai (Ben Yehoyada, Menachot 89a), but only after teaching us an important idea about the Mishkan.

Our Rabbis explain that each of the items in the Mishkan symbolised different aspects of Jewish life, and in the case of the Menorah it represents Torah. Given this, the Ben Ish Chai writes that our approach to Torah study should draw inspiration from the olive tree; just as an olive tree is ever-green and remains vibrant throughout all seasons, so too should we invest energy to learn and grow from Torah every day, in every season, throughout the year.
While this may be so, you may be asking yourself whether this is practical. Seriously – are we really expected to study Torah all day?!

The simple answer is no. As we learn from the following verse, Aharon and his sons arranged for the Menorah to burn from evening until morning, meaning that as long as one studies a little amount of Torah both in the daytime and nighttime (see Rambam, Talmud Torah 1:8) it is sufficient. However, there is one further consideration which must be discussed, and to do so, I would like to move from discussing olive trees to the diets of marathon runners.

Before a marathon, runners are encouraged to eat a delicately balanced menu of fast-releasing and slow-burning carbs because they need to ensure that they start the race feeling energised while also ensuring that they continue to draw from the slow-burning carbs for the duration of the race. In the same spirit, our Rabbis explain that part of the duties given to Aharon and his sons was to ensure that they place enough oil in the Menorah to last throughout the night (see Menachot 89a), which meant that they needed to consider whether they had enough oil not only to last for the short summer nights, but also, for the long winter nights.

Applying this to our lives, it is not sufficient to simply learn a line of Torah in the morning and evening and think that it suffices. Instead, we must create a personalised ‘Torah diet’ for ourselves that provides us with a perfect balance of fast-releasing and slow-burning Torah ideas to help us get through the day. It has been said that ‘life is a marathon, not a sprint…train for endurance, not speed’, and I think that too many of us learn Torah in a way that prepares us to sprint through life but not in a way that helps us through the marathon of life.

We learn from the olive tree, and from the Menorah itself, that a daily commitment to Torah has the possibility of bringing warmth, vibrancy and colour to our lives, and we learn from marathon runners that this is achievable by consuming the right Torah diet. Once achieved, you – like the olive tree in my garden – will grow to great heights.

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