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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wikipedia's Live Map as a Metaphor for G-d's "View" of Torah Learning


This morning I tweeted a visual map of Wikipedia changes in real time that was shared by a friend of mine, Dov Emerson. I pondered how it was it was really cool to see the evergrowing knowledge base of Wikipedia in action. Through the viral nature of Twitter, another friend Dani Cooper piggybacked on my tweet and transformed it into a metaphor for how G-d must view Torah learning throughout the world. You can see the Twitter conversation below.

This got me thinking, as I often do when counting down to Shavuot and Matan Torah, about the primacy of Torah learning. The Talmud in Shabbat 88a describes how the Torah is so central to the divine weltanschauung that when the Children of Israel were offered to receive the Torah, they were given an offer that they could not refuse. G-d so to speak, held the mountain over their heads like a barrel and proclaimed that the Children of Israel could either accept the Torah or be buried under the mountain. This is obviously difficult to reconcile with the idea of נעשה ונשמע, that the Children of Israel enthusiastically and willfully accepted the Torah and the Talmud attempts to reconcile this by saying that later at the time of the Purim story the Jewish people willfully accepted the Torah. You can view the Gemara together with some major commentators on it in the source sheet below.

However, the Talmud later explains that in reality the reason for "forcing" the Children of Israel to receive the Torah was because it was a law of nature. G-d made the entire creation of the world conditional on the Children of Israel's accepting the Torah. If they did not accept the Torah, then the creation of the world would be reversed and the universe would return to emptiness. So it was not that G-d was threatening the people, rather it was natural law. The world could only exist if the Children of Israel accepted the Torah.

Rav Chaim Volozhin in his classic Nefesh HaChaim expands on this idea based on various midrashim. He says that not only was the creation of the world conditional on the Torah but the very continued existence of the world is conditional on continued Torah learning. If for one moment, there would not be at least one Jew in the world learning Torah, then the world would cease to exist. It is not that the world would be destroyed, rather the world would disintegrate to a state as if it was never even created in the first place. The creation of the world remains conditional on Torah study.

It was for this reason that in Rav Chaim's yeshiva Volozhin, the first modern yeshiva, they set up shifts so that every moment of every day and night, there was at least one student learning Torah. The students of Volozhin felt that since they were the top yeshiva in the world, it was incumbent on them to personally uphold the world through their Torah study. It is even recorded that the famed Netziv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the last Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin would not leave the Beit Midrash to break his fast after Yom Kippur until the first students returned from their break fast meal. He would rather sit and study so that not a moment would pass without someone in the Beit Midrash learning Torah. You can view these sources as well in the second page of the source sheet below.



This is why the visual map of Wikipedia and Dani Cooper's tweet so excited me. Obviously, Wikipedia does not hold up the world, although it can be a pretty useful tool. But Torah study does. If only we could have a visual map of every moment of Torah study somewhere in the world. Then we would truly be able to see G-d's "view" of Limud Torah. Until then the Wikipedia  visual map is our best approximation for what this might look like.

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