Living in Learning
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 2, 2009
Whenever I ask myself precisely what makes me chareidi, I come back to a story I read recently about Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteiman. A couple in Bnei Brak were having a small family dispute. One of them wanted to buy a fancy new car, and the other felt that such a car might bring on the evil eye.
The husband was duly dispatched to Reb Aharon Leib for his opinion. Reb Aharon Leib asked the husband what perek (chapter) he was learning in Gemara. The man stumbled briefly, trying to remember the name of the perek. Then Reb Aharon Leib asked him whether he had a chiddush of any kind in the Gemara. He did not. Next Reb Aharon Leib asked him whether he had some insight on the parashah (weekly Torah reading) or some problem with which he was wrestling. Again, there was only an embarrassed silence.
Finally, Reb Aharon Leib told the husband in all temimus (innocence), "You don't have anything to say about the Gemara. You don't have anything to say about the parashah. Why should anyone envy you? You can buy whatever car you want."
Now, few of us live at the level of Reb Aharon Leib, who could not comprehend how anyone could be envious of his neighbor's fancy car. Yet the story encapsulates a communal ideal: the essence of life is intense involvement with Torah. I want to live and raise my children in a community where that ideal burns bright. And the chareidi community of Eretz Yisrael most nearly approximates that ideal.
All forms of envy have not been extirpated from our midst, but the most prevalent form is kinaus sofrim, which is not really envy at all. For kinaus sofrim does not begrudge another his achievement of gadlus b'Torah (greatness in Torah). Rather it requires that gadlus b'Torah as a spur to greater effort. Envy of material goods is based on the feeling that someone's success has diminished my slice of the pie. But in ruchnios (the world of the spirit) there is no finite pie. Another's growth does not take away from mine Just the opposite it lifts me to the extent that I aspire to the same growth.
When I think about the happiest, most fulfilled people I know, it is those talmidei chachamim for whom the entire Torah is a seamless whole, in which everything fits together. One looks at them and is calmed by the knowledge that they have worked everything out. Whatever questions are troubling one at the time, their presence provides confidence that answers exist.
Our society, like any other, has its haves and have-nots -- i.e., there are bigger and lesser talmidei chachamim, and those to whom the term talmid chacham will never be applied. But as long as the greatest talmidei chachamim are viewed as a communal treasure whose Torah learning belongs not to them alone but benefits everyone – as a source of inspiration, a model of emulation, as a bulwark against the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life – then the community as a whole remains healthy.
NOT ONLY DOES the story with which I began concisely capture the glory of our community. It also contains an important lesson about what constitutes true Torah learning. Reb Aharon Leib assumed, or pretended to, that the hapless baalebos who sought his advice was learning regularly. Yet he gently indicated to him that it was not enough. His learning was too passive, too lacking in an aggressive involvement of all his intellectual powers. In short, it was not important enough to him. For if it was, he would surely have had something to ask, something to talk about. It is impossible to learn virtually any Gemara or even the parashah without confronting difficulties that must be resolved. If nothing bothers you when you are learning and does not continue to niggle even after you have closed your Gemara, you are not sufficiently invested in your Torah learning.
Two weeks ago, I proposed a simple self-test of our ruchnios level: How often do we ask the question, "What does Hashem want from me in this situation?" This past week, I thought of another test that applies at least to the male members of our community: How would I feel if I found myself sitting next to one of the gedolei hador?
The opportunity to speak to a gadol b'Torah should, at first glance, be an occasion for rejoicing. Suddenly one has the chance to discuss all the unresolved difficulties in the Gemara one is learning or the questions that have arisen that week in the parashah. If there is no joy like the resolution of doubts, what could be better than that? The only catch is that one must first have sufficient clarity in the Gemara to formulate a question. And secondly, the question must bother one enough that it is easily recalled.
Like all my tests, I discovered this one only after failing it. One of my nephews made a siyum Hashas, and present at the siyum was one of the gedolei hador and another major talmid chacham, who has authored of a number of important halachic works. Yet try as I might, I could not think of a single insight remotely worth sharing with either of them, or even a well-formulated question. The only difference between me and the baalebos in the first story, I realized, is the wherewithal to buy a new car.
About twenty years ago, I was learning in Mirrer Yeshiva, when two young chavrusas (study partners) in front of me leapt to their feet and started screaming at each other. Fisticuffs appeared imminent. I was filled with envy at the passion their learning excited (though in subsequent years, whenever I tried to imitated them, and yelled at a chavrusah, "Am I talking to a bar daas (a sentient being)?" I invariably turned out to be wrong.)
It hit me at the time that their total involvement in their learning and the importance they attached to finding the true pshat (understanding) in the Gemara was the source of the incredible mental acuity one finds in yeshivos. I can't imagine living outside of an environment where such passion is commonplace, even if the price of admission is often embarrassment at the failure to measure up.
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