The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
Five hundred years ago, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great decided to erect a dazzling new capital for his empire on the desolate plains of northern India. The site he chose was called Fatehpur Sikri, and the city that his workers built there was nothing short of breathtaking. Its palaces, halls, courtyards and gardens were glorious with native red sandstone and marble. The city shone. It was a monument of beauty. Yet after spending a vast fortune to build it, the king and his court did not have much opportunity to enjoy the graceful city.
Shortly after arriving, they were shocked to discover that the architects had failed to consider a water supply. With no available options in the dry plains, the king was forced to abandon his city. His dream literally dried up. And Fatehpur Sikri has been a ghost town ever since: exquisite, glorious and dead. Today it is one of the most visited sites in India.
When I heard this story, I was struck that it is also the story of Torah.
Torah is the water supply that makes Jewish life possible. With it, we flourish. Without it, we disappear, no matter how impressive our achievements otherwise appear.
The late prime minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was close friends with Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, the chief rabbi of Britain. One evening, when she was still secretary of education, Thatcher was the guest of honor at a dinner. Rabbi Jakobovits introduced her by saying, “It’s my honor to call up to the podium the minister of defense, Margaret Thatcher …”
“Rabbi,” people called out. “She’s the secretary for education, not the minister of defense!”
Lord Jakobovits responded, “You’re wrong. I meant what I said. Margaret Thatcher is really the minister of defense, because it’s what is learned in the family, it’s what is taught at school that keeps the nation whole and strong. That truly defends our country.”
Thatcher cherished that comment and repeated it for decades.
Indeed, it is education that defends a people. Torah learning with family, Torah learning in school is what keeps the Jewish people whole and strong.
The indispensability of Torah — which we received on Shavuot — to Jewish life has been vividly expressed in a teaching of our ancient sages about the breaking of the tablets.
You know the scene: Moses comes down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, sees the golden calf and, in a rage, smashes the tablets onto the ground. Interestingly, when Freud studied Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in Rome, he noticed that the tablets seemed to be slipping from Moses’ grasp. He was not throwing them down in anger. Moses was depressed rather than indignant. His strength failed him, and the stones dropped of their own weight.
Did Michelangelo get it right? Was Freud’s analysis correct?
Yes. According to the Midrash, when Moses descended from Mount Sinai, he held the tablets of stone engraved by the finger of God. Such was the power of the engraved letters that Moses did not have to carry the tablets; the tablets carried him. His descent over jagged rocks wasn’t strenuous; it was smooth and easy, like a ride in a hovercraft. The letters soared.
But when Moses neared the foot of the mountain and saw the golden calf, when God’s words directly encountered the idol, something astonishing happened. The sacred, engraved letters detached themselves from the stone and disappeared into thin air.
All that was left in Moses’ hands were two blank, enormous rocks, too heavy for him to hold. It is not true, say the sages, that Moses threw the tablets to the ground in anger. Rather, he had to let them go or be crushed. Once the letters were gone, the tablets were too much weight for him to bear.
The sages were not only talking about Moses, but about the fate of the Jews. When the Jewish people lose the knowledge of Torah, Judaism becomes a crushing burden, too heavy to bear, too easy to toss aside. Like the ghost city of King Akbar, it’s a dry, lifeless burden. But while the Jewish people carry the knowledge of Torah, it lifts us up, sustains us, nourishes us.
Dispersed, scattered, landless and powerless for 2,000 years, the Jews were beset by adversity. But as long as a Jew studied Torah, no trouble was too difficult to overcome. Yes, Jews have lost battles with great empires, but they have won the war against Time, the most formidable enemy of all. All nations, no matter how strong, eventually decline and fall. But that law does not apply to a people who study Torah, where every person is turned into a Minister of Defense. Never has a book sustained a people longer or lifted them higher.