R' Yitsḥak of Akko, in his super-commentary on Ramban, Me'irat Énayim, tells the following story:
Once a sage came to a group of meditators and asked that he be accepted into their society. The other replied, "My son, blessed are you to God. Your intentions are good. But tell me, have you attained stoicism?' The sage said, 'Master, explain your words.' The meditator said, 'If one man is praising you and another is insulting you, are the two equal in your eyes or not?' He replied, 'No, my master, I have pleasure from those who praise me and pain from those who degrade me. But I do not take revenge or bear a grudge.' The other said, 'Go in peace my son. You have not attained stoicism. You have not reached a level where your soul does not feel the praise of one who honours you, nor the degradation of one who insults you. You are not prepared for your thoughts to bound on high, that you should come and meditate. Go and increase the humility of your heart, and learn to treat everything equally until you have become stoic. Only then will you be able to meditate."
Stoicism? 'Is that even a Jewish value?' you may ask. Fair enough, so let's take a different translation of the word in question (השתוות) - 'equanimity.' Better? Maybe not - it still may be a shock to us to see that someone would be turned away from studying Torah because they have not achieved this type of equanimity. It may seem to be an impossible goal - to take no offense when we are insulted, and to take no pleasure when we are praised. Yet the story is meant to illustrate precisely this: do not take the gift of Torah for granted.
Today, on Shavu'ot, when we celebrate zeman matan toraténu, (the time our Torah was given), we would do well to think carefully about how we receive Torah. Is it automatic? Do we, simply by virtue of being Jews, find ourselves entitled to take part in this moment of revelation and reception? Quite the contrary, actually. The Torah, as we will see, is a gift which is conditional - requiring us to take the first steps to make ourselves worthy of it. Just like the anonymous sage seeking fellowship with the stoic meditators, we too may find that we must fulfill a prerequisite before we can receive the Gift of Torah which we commemorate today.
For the past six weeks, in the lead-up to this heavenly gift-exchange, we have been reading Pirké Avot on Shabbat afternoons. This tractate, full of ethical and spiritual advice, is particularly assigned for these weeks between Pesaḥ and Shavu'ot. Why? Perhaps because it offers us some insight into what we need to do to truly make it to Shavu'ot. Perhaps more is required of us than simply counting off the days in the reverse-advent calendar of the Omer. Perhaps some spiritual preparation stands as a prerequisite to our participation in this moment of national revelation. Pirké Avot certainly seems to think so, and in Chapter 2 we find R' Yosé teach:
וְהַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ לִלְמֹד תּוֹרָה, שֶׁאֵינָהּ יְרֻשָּׁה לָךְ
Prepare yourself to study Torah for it is not an inheritance for you.
Prepare ourselves? That may seem counterintuitive. For those of us born into Jewish families - carrying the history, honor and horror of our people - we might imagine that Torah is our inheritance. We might tell ourselves that our birth alone is enough to entitle us to Torah. It’s not. No one can receive it passively. We must, as R’ Yosé instructs us in this Mishnah, prepare ourselves to do so. I can certainly relate to this - although I was born Jewish, I inherited no Torah by virtue of that fact. Whatever knowledge I have acquired today is due to careful preparation and tireless work. Whatever Torah I carry with me is certainly a gift, but it is one given in recognition of effort - not unconditionally. Torah, it would seem, is a trophy. If we prepare ourselves, if we seek and search and struggle as individuals to acquire it, then (and perhaps only then) can we merit to receive it.
Ḥakham Avraham Sha'ul Amir elaborates on this even better in his commentary (Peniné Avot, p. 116):
'התקן עצמך ללימוד תורה שאינה ירושה לך' - מלשון תיקון והכנה מראש, אין לגשת אל לימוד התורה ישירות: אבי חכם, אמי חכמה, גם אני חכם ואלמד תורה. אתבונן, אחקור, אסיק מסקנות ובסופו של דבר אדע. תיקון המידות - הוא שלב קודם ללימוד תורה, שלב הערכים והמוסר, הוא תנאי לתורה.
"Prepare yourself to study Torah for it is not an inheritance for you." This begins with the language of 'repair' and 'preparation,' for one can not obtain the study of Torah directly: [saying} 'My father is wise, my mother is wise, so I too am wise and can learn Torah.' [Instead, you should] meditate, research, and weigh different views so in the end you can know. Fixing one's character - this is a level which precedes studying Torah, a level of ethical values which is a precondition of the Torah."
Ḥakham Amir here has a clever grammatical observation which we should not ignore. The Mishnah's charge to us is more than 'prepare yourself,' - it is, 'repair yourself.' The verb which offers us advice on how to be ready to receive is one that implies repair, fixing, and rectification. Thus, we can learn a bit about how we are to prepare to receive Torah. How, in fact, do we make ourselves ready and worthy of this great gift which we commemorate today? We fix ourselves. We fix our character. We improve those attributes which are our ethical values. Just as the sage in our story above was turned away for not yet achieving a stoic posture toward life, so too we must work, first and foremost, on ourselves.
Torah is given in response to our own self-improvement. The better we are, the more available it is to us. If we are here today, at Shavu'ot, imagining that we can have a piece of Sinai simply because we were born to Jewish parents, we have fooled ourselves. Our place at the foot of that mountain of revelation is guaranteed only by profound and sustained effort, and only when we focus ourselves on fixing ourselves. Improving our character, developing our values, and acting ethically in the world around us.
The Torah is a great gift - the greatest we can receive. Yet, it is not given regardless of our merits. We must work to be worthy of its light. As Ḥakham Ben-Tsiyyon Uziel taught in a sermon on Pirké Avot (Mussar Avot):
אומרים לנו רבותינו דבר גדול וחשוב מאוד והוא: ״התקן עצמך ללמוד תורה שאינה ירושה לך.״ [אבות ב:יב] אין התורה נקנית בלמוד בלבד ולא במעשה, אין זויה והדרה של התורה שורה בנפש ערטילאית שאין לה משלה כלום, בחומר אטום שאניו מחזיק כלום, בגולם שאין בו צורה, אבל התורה מצויה במי שהוא מכין ומתקן את עצמו, מכשיר את הרגש ואת הנפש לקבלה ולהשתעבד לה
Our Sages have told us a great and important thing: ‘Prepare yourself [in order] to learn Torah, for it is not an inheritance for you.’ (Avot 2:12) The Torah can’t be acquired through learning or action only. It’s radiance and beauty doesn’t fall on some undefined soul who has no real life: like the material of an atom which can’t be grasped at all, or a golem who has no real form. The Torah is only found with one who prepares and repairs themselves, training their emotions and their soul to receive it and to subject themselves to it.
"The Torah is only found with one who prepares and repairs themselves, training their emotions and their soul to receive it and to subject themselves to it." Let us take these words to heart. Let us, this year, and every year work to make ourselves better. My prayer for us is this: May we not be foolish enough to assume that we are worthy of Torah - may we make ourselves so. May every moment, every day, and every year help us to repair and prepare ourselves to receive this great gift which we celebrate today. May we fix ourselves, work on ourselves, care for ourselves - all out of the desire to receive the radical revelation which is held for us. May we reach Sinai as the end of a strenuous journey, spotting its peaks on our arduous trail, feeling the relief of knowing we have worked very hard to get there.