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July 21, 2017 12:24 pm

Take Whatever Opportunity You Can to Study Torah

avatar by Pini Dunner

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A scene from ‘Doing Jewish: A Story From Ghana.’ Photo: Screenshot.

Following the loss of its American colonies in 1783, Great Britain was forced to find alternative locations for its various colonial enterprises — one of which was the mass deportation of convicts to “penal colonies” in distant geographic locations. Historians estimate that approximately 50,000 convicts were dispatched to colonial America during the decades before American independence — amounting to at least one quarter of all British immigrants to America during the 18th century.

Serendipitously, the loss of the American colonies coincided with the formal colonization by Great Britain of a large landmass in the Southern Hemisphere called Australia. The first shipment of British convicts arrived there in 1788, and by the time that the convicts had landed there 80 years later, the total number of convicts who had been sent to Australia numbered an astounding 162,000 men and women.

The popular myth is that all “real” Australians are descended from these convicts. Although this notion is a misconception for reasons beyond the scope of this article, I have nonetheless always wondered why so few of these people went back home? Why would they have stayed in Australia, a vast prison country thousands of miles from home? Did they not have families to go back to?

I decided to research the topic. The answer, I discovered, is rather more prosaic and straightforward than I had imagined. For most of these convicts, returning to England was not an option — either because their “freedom” was limited to Australia, or because they were unable to afford the passage home. In any event, Australia offered them greater opportunity, particularly as their prospects back home as former convicts was quite limited. In short, staying in Australia was the better option, even if — in a perfect world — they really desired to get back home.

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The reason I was drawn to this subject was a curious Talmudic source based on a verse in the Torah portion of Massei. The subject under discussion is someone convicted of the biblical version of manslaughter. This inadvertent murderer is compelled to live out his days in a “city of refuge” — ostensibly to escape the life-threatening intentions of vengeful family members of his victim.

This kind of exile was not, strictly speaking, a life sentence. There was one event that enabled the convicted killer to go back home — if the presiding High Priest of Jerusalem’s Temple died (Num. 35:28): “for he must remain in the city of his refuge until the death of the High Priest.”

The Talmud (Mak. 2:6) records an extraordinary consequence of this exile law: “the mothers of the priests provided food and clothes [to the residents of cities of refuge], so they would not pray for their sons to die.”

The sages of the Gemara who expound on the Mishna were more concerned as to why the death of a High Priest would be the mandated trigger for the freedom of a convicted killer; they ignored the reference to attempts by his mother to mitigate the situation, leaving this for later commentators to reflect upon.

The question that particularly occupied me — the one that led me to the Australian convicts phenomenon — was this: did the High Priest’s mother really believe that someone whose freedom had been curtailed would be swayed by some home-baked pies and a scarf to drop their natural desire to be free and return home? I understand that desperate situations call for desperate measures, and of course a mother will try anything to protect her child — but that is hardly a sound reason for her actions to be included in a Talmudic discussion about the law.

The enigmatic Hasidic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), is purported to have once told his followers that when he prayed for them not to sin, it wasn’t their sinning that concerned him. Rather, it was the fact that they had the time to sin. He prayed that their schedules should be so packed with Torah study and the performance of mitzvot, that there would simply be no time left for them to sin.

One of the ironies of the cities of refuge was that they were centers of Torah study. In addition to the fact that they were led by the Levite tribe, who were the Torah scholars of the nation, the Talmud said that each convict needed to bring his rabbi with him — and, if necessary, his scholarly colleagues — so that his Torah study would not suffer as a result of his conviction and exile.

Whatever we are to make of this quite incredible requirement, it certainly reinforces the idea that Torah education can never be abandoned, or shunted aside — even if someone is forced to live in a city of refuge. Rather than treat the forced relocation as a personal disaster, it must be viewed as an opportunity.

The mother’s gifts of food and clothing may or may not have made a difference to the lifespan of her son, but its inclusion in the Talmud conveys the idea that prolonging a convict’s time in the city of refuge was a positive thing — an opportunity to spend more time in a positive Torah-infused environment. The message is subtle but simple: if an opportunity for Torah study opens up, however incongruous it may seem to be, don’t waste it.

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