Just before Pesach, I met with a Jew who spends every waking moment thinking about Klal Yisrael and every individual in it. At some point in the conversation, he used the term "bench kvetchers" to describe most of those learning in kollelim today.
We are talking about someone who is a mokir rabbanim and has been instrumental in founding and supporting many yeshivos. He does not doubt for a moment the necessity of great talmidei chachamim for Klal Yisrael. Yet he feels that those who are not destined to become great talmidei chachamim are largely wasting their time after a number of years in Kollel.
Even within the yeshivos, similarly distorted attitudes concerning the value of each individual's Torah learning can be found. A careless quotation of the Gemara's statement, "A thousand enter and one goes out to hora'a," for instance, can be misunderstood by a young talmid to mean that only that one's learning is of value, and everyone else is mere cannon fodder for his production. Those who conclude, at whatever age, that they will never be the one can become discouraged and devalue their own learning.
Over Pesach, I had an opportunity to experience with clarity why such attitudes are so wrong. I'm privileged to live in a neighborhood where the central event of Chol HaMoed for many is the shiur given by a young talmid chacham in the neighborhood, who by any conceivable measure is that one in a thousand. The shiur is actually two – one in halacha and one in aggadata – divided only by Ma'ariv, and goes for well over five hours. The aggadata shiur concluded this year well past midnight, and it was clear that it only ended then, after more than three hours, not because the rav could not have gone on another two hours speaking without notes, but because he had mercy on the ability of his listeners to absorb any more.
One could be discouraged, I suppose, by the chasm between one's own Torah learning and that of the rav in question. (I joked to one friend after the halacha shiur that I was cured once and for all of any illusions of my own intellectual prowess, but the truth is that my own rosh yeshiva, Rav Tzvi Kushlevsky, already did that a quarter of century ago.) Those who packed the shul, however, did not come to gain humility, but to learn and be inspired. A young rosh yeshiva approached me at the end of the aggadata shiur and said, "We should be dancing," and looked as if he was about to start.
Even those, like myself, who absorbed but a fraction of the shiur, were able to experience the infinity of Torah, the limitless depth of every statement of our Sages. The rav's mastery of such a vast expanse of Torah heightens our own desire to delve into the yam shel Torah (sea of Torah), even if we have little hope of retrieving similar pearls. Far from diminishing us, exposure to greatness in Torah lifts us and inspires our own ameilus b'Torah (striving in Torah).
Another shiur I heard over Pesach brought home the immeasurable value of all ameilus b'Torah and the foolishness of all comparisons to anyone else's level of learning, except as a spur to greater effort. That shiur was less than an hour, and the talmid chacham giving it – someone who has learned Shas in depth – may even have had a few notes. But it too was gem-like in its clarity and precision.
As I listened, I could not help but feel the nachas ruach that must come from having succeeded, after great effort, in any attaining clarity in any complicated topic in the Talmud and resolving some of its difficulties. And more, I could not help think about the nachas ruach that effort brings to the Ribbono shel Olam. That nachas ruach to the Ribbono shel Olam is not measured against that provided by anyone else – only against our own potential. Our chiddushim do not become worthless because the Vilna Gaon or Reb Chaim Brisker had far greater insights.
There can never be too much ameilus b'Torah because of the infinite value of all learning Torah l'shma. The study of Torah is qualitatively different than any other human endeavor and the knowledge gained from that study different from all other forms of knowledge. As a community, we face certain practical issues: How can we ensure that those learning with great mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) are able to continue doing so and still feed their families? How can we provide opportunities for the large number of distinguished talmidei chachamim for whom there are no positions to share their Torah with their fellow Jews? But those practical questions do not detract in any way from the infinite value of all Torah l'shma.
The study of Torah, writes the Ramchal, has greater power than any human activity to transform both the world and the one engaged in that study: Other works, even when they contain "accurate and valuable" information, have no potential to "incorporate any significance and excellence in the soul of the [reader and] . . . absolutely no power to rectify Creation." It is through the Influence [of Torah study] that G-d shares His glory and excellence with His handiwork.
Through the study of Torah, we cleave to the Divine Will. The Torah reveals to us the goals for which G-d has placed us in the world. To seek guidance concerning the ends of life from any other source is to subject oneself to the Gemara's curse: "He who puts G-d's name together with something else will be uprooted from the world" (Sanhedrin 63a). All other forms of knowledge are of value only as means to attain the ends that the Torah reveals. But such knowledge, by definition, can never form a continuum of knowledge with that of the Torah, for it is merely the means to the ends declared by the Torah.
Because no other human activity has a power comparable to learning Torah l'shma to open Hashem's pipelines of blessing to the world no Jew capable of learning at that level is ever unneeded, even if he toils in anonymity.