Shabbat 31: No Need to Cram

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |


Having the questions of an exam in advance would seem to be a big advantage. Yet often, such advantages are frittered away as we are apt to work a little less hard-thinking that, with questions in hand, it will be easy to do well.

“Rava said, at the hour that man is brought in for [final] judgment, we say to him: Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully? Did you establish set times for the study of Torah? Were you involved in raising children? Did you yearn for redemption? Did you engage in the search for wisdom? And did you understand one thing from another?” While many like to cram for an exam, this is one test that we must start preparing for as soon as possible. There are no postponements due to our busy schedule, and there are no makeups; we get one chance to prepare for the exam and that’s it. While we do not know exactly when the exam will be given, at least we know the questions in advance. So we had better be ready on a moment’s notice.

One might wonder exactly how our Sages knew this. The Talmud derives this exegetically from the verse, "and the faith of your times shall be the strength of salvations, wisdom and knowledge; fear of the Lord, that is his treasure" (Isaiah 33:6). However, it appears as if the Sages were expressing their views on six cardinal principles by which we must live. The Talmud, immediately prior, had interpreted this verse to refer to the six orders of the Mishnah. The fact that Rava offers a second, theoretically unnecessary interpretation indicates that it is these questions that must guide us through life.

While each is important throughout our lives, it seems to me that we might interpret each question as referring to a different stage of life. The foundational cornerstone of our life begins with ensuring that we conduct our affairs faithfully. Proper character traits must be instilled in us as children, even as toddlers. By the teenage years, it is already most difficult to change our bad habits. And while one might argue that children have little to do with business, we know that children have a sense of money at a very young age--by 3 years old or so. Children can sniff out a lie, and being exposed to such at a young age is morally fatal. Many a crooked businessman had the seeds of duplicity planted, likely subconsciously, at a very young age--a simple thing like failing to declare our goods at the border might have a lifetime impact on a four year old.

Once we have established that derech eretz kadmah leTorah, we can begin formal Torah education. The primary focus of our children should be on getting a solid Torah education; hence, the second question: Did you establish fixed times for Torah? The sacredness of fixed time is such that the Talmud, in an amazing ruling, states that we do not interrupt the Torah study of our children--even to build the Temple.

As our intensive formal studies take a back seat to establishing a family, we must ask if one was osek, involved, in the mitzvah of having children. It is not enough to biologically father children; one must actively raise them. Children bring hope for the future, and our future must be one in which we yearn for redemption. We must never lose hope that the future can and will be better, especially if we make it so.

As we age and after years of earning a living, it is time to hit the books again. Having gained much from life’s experiences, we are to engage in the varieties of wisdom in the world. And finally, a life of meaning is one in which we can apply what we learn, where we can pass on our knowledge in such a way that others can benefit from it.

The exam may consist of only six questions, but it takes a lifetime of preparation.