When we recite a blessing for a particular activity, be it eating or lighting Sabbath candles, we are pausing to assign meaning and import to that act. This gesture of intentionality is known in Hebrew as kavanah. When we recite these blessings, we are elevating a routine act into the realm of the holy.
One might think that the study of Torah, an act which is itself holy, would need no such blessing. But the rabbis tell us otherwise. They understood the all-too-human tendency to routinize activities, however exalted they may be. And our intentions may be misguided if we study Torah only to demonstrate our intellectual prowess or fit in with a particular crowd.
And so we find the prayer Viha’arev Nah, which comes very early in the traditional liturgy of the morning prayers and reads as follows:
וְהַעֲרֶב נָא ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ אֶת דִּבְרֵי תורָתְךָ בְּפִינוּ וּבְפִיּות עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל. וְנִהְיֶה אֲנַחְנוּ וְצֶאֱצָאֵינוּ. וְצֶאֱצָאֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל. כֻּלָּנוּ יודְעֵי שְׁמֶךָ וְלומְדֵי תורָתֶךָ לִשְׁמָהּ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ הַמְלַמֵּד תּורָה לְעַמּו יִשרָאֵל:
And please, Lord, our God, make the words of Your Torah pleasant in our mouths and in the mouths of all of Your people, the House of Israel. And may we and our offspring [and the offspring of our offspring] and the offspring of Your people, the House of Israel – all of us – be knowing of Your Name and studying Your Torah for its sake. Blessed are You, Lord, Who teaches Torah to His people, Israel.
This prayer begins by asking God to make the words of Torah arev, most commonly translated as sweet or pleasant. The Mei Shiloach, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi, suggests that by associating Torah with sweetness, we are hoping to become addicted to its study, such that we yearn to engage in learning that will connect us to God.
But the root arev has multiple other meanings, each of which offers a unique doorway into the study of Torah.
Arev also means to combine. This is the intention ascribed to Viha’arev Nah by the Tiferet Shlomo, a Hasidic rabbi who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. In this view, we are asking God to help us to integrate God’s words into our own. Rather than see our study of Torah as something distant to be apprehended only with our minds, this intention invites us to be moved by our study such that we truly incorporate divine inspiration into our being, as if we are being visited by a spirit from above.
Arev can also mean to accept responsibility for another. With this intention, we remind ourselves that the study of Torah always embodies an ethical dimension. “If I am only for myself who am I?” asked the first century sage Hillel. Torah study is most potent when it moves us to act on behalf of others. In fact, one of the first prayers we recite after Viha’arev Nah is a passage from the Talmud that reminds us of our obligations to one another.
Viha’arev Nah continues by reminding us that when we study Torah in a mindful manner, we are modeling a way of being that will lay the groundwork for our intentions to be transmitted to future generations. Sustaining this level of intentionality is not easy or even possible all the time. But that is precisely why we pause at the start of each day to remind ourselves who we want to be when we encounter Torah.