To Each One His Portion in Torah
"One thousand enter [the beis medrash] and only one goes out to hora'a [i.e., to be a major halachic decisor]." Most of us have heard this phrase – assumedly a ma'amar Chazal – quoted numerous times in our yeshiva and kollel years. What precisely it is cited for, however, is not always clear.
Does it mean, for instance that the production of one gadol in psak halacha requires 999 others to be in the beis medrash with him? A mere glance at recent history suggests that is not the case. Many of the preeminent halachic decisors of recent generations never learned a day in an advanced yeshiva – the Chazon Ish, Rav Elyashiv – and others only for a few years – e.g., Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
Other times, the supposed ma'amar Chazal is quoted as if to say that the only purpose of the world is the production of that one supremely great scholar and all the rest of us are nothing but cannon fodder. But the mind rebels against that interpretation. For it is impossible that HaKadosh Baruch Hu brought anything into existence, and, in particular, a Jew without some specific purpose that he and only he can fulfill in the Creation. Otherwise why did Hashem take such care that every single human being be absolutely unique?
Fortunately, where an idea is one against which the seichel rebels, it's a pretty good bet that it is misquoted or misunderstood. And so I was relieved a few years back when Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, a highly respected principal in Los Angeles, pointed out to me that no such ma'amar Chazal exists. The actual ma'amar Chazal states: "A thousand enter to Mikra; of the one thousand, one hundred enter to Mishnah; of the one hundred, ten enter to Talmud; and of the ten, one enters hora'a."
I do not understand the words of Chazal to enunciate precise percentages who will succeed at ascending levels of learning – e.g., that only 10% of talmidim will ever feel a geshmak in learning Gemara. Nor do I understand them to mean that some will learn only Chumash and nothing more, or Mishnah and nothing more – though in many Eastern European batei medrash there were different groups focused on different learning – e.g., the Chevra Shas, the Chevra Mishnayos, even the Chevra Ein Yaakov.
Any such understanding would be an indictment of our current yeshiva system, which is almost universally predicated on a heavy concentration on Gemara learning for all students. And we see clearly that most talmidim can experience a real satisfaction in Gemara learning.
But perhaps what Chazal are indicating to us is that there are different aspects and levels of Torah learning, and not each one will appeal equally to every student. We must eventually find the level at which we are most suited to concentrate our efforts.
Each of us responds to different classic perushim on the Torah; each of us has his own favorite sifrei mussar or hashkafa. In the early days of Torah Vodaas, for instance, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz included in the curriculum an incredibly wide array of Torah subjects by today's standards. And the list of classics of Jewish thought to which each student was exposed was also far wider than is common today. He used to explain that the only way to counteract the forces of spiritual tumah that were then prevalent was with a more powerful spiritual taharah, and that the only way to ensure that was if every talmid found Torah subjects and classic works of Jewish thought to which he related deeply.
It is no tragedy that each of us relates to HaKadosh Baruch Hu through different aspects of Torah. The only true tragedy is when we do not relate to any aspect of Torah and therefore have no connection to the world of spirit.
In today's world, in which the forces of materialism are so powerful, a young man or woman who does not feel strongly connected to ruchnios through Torah is highly vulnerable. We no longer live in traditional societies totally self-contained and insulated against the outside world. We cannot entirely close ourselves off from the world around us. Without an anchor in Torah, we are likely to find ourselves buffeted by strong winds.
RABBI SHLOMO LORINCZ relates in the first volume of In Their Shadow a remarkable story about Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach that brings out this point. Rav Shach once called a meeting of important Jewish leaders, most of them from chutz l'aretz. Given the importance of the gathering those responsible for controlling the traffic in Rav Shach's house announced that there would be no visitors that day. Just before the meeting was about to commence, however, a father approached with his fourteen-year-old son. He had come to receive a berachah for his son from Rav Shach that he should experience success in learning, and promised that he would take only a minute.
The askanim who had come from around the world agreed, and the man and his son entered. They did not come out, however, for close to an hour-and-a-half. By that time those who had been summoned by Rav Shach were understandably fuming. The man, however, protested that he was blameless. Rav Shach had asked the boy whether he experienced simchah in his learning, and the boy responded negatively. Rav Shach asked him why, and the boy told him, "I don't understand what they are teaching me."
When he heard that Rav Shach asked the boy what Gemara he was currently learning, and took down two volumes from the shelf and proceeded to learn the sugya of yeush shelo midaas with him. After more than hour of patiently explaining the Gemara, Rav Schach asked the boy whether he now understood the sugya. The boy started to cry, and then explained, "I'm crying from joy that for the first time I've understood a complicated sugya with clarity. This is the first time I've experienced any ta'am for learning."
After the man and the boy had left, Rav Shach came out of his study and apologized profusely to those waiting, but said he was too exhausted by his exertions to meet that day and asked to reschedule the meeting for the next day. Later he explained to one of those close to him, "To experience a taste in learning is a matter of pikuach nefesh. One who does not experience a geshmak in Torah, one who has no ta'am for learning Torah is like a person sick with a life-threatening illness. For pikuach nefesh, I was obligated to take the time, even at the expense of all those waiting outside.
Rabbi Lorincz concludes that when Rav Shach used to test boys in cheder or yeshiva ketana in learning, if he saw that one of the talmidim was not properly grasping the material, he would call his rebbe that night and explain to him how to teach the material to that particular student.
That is the true origin of No Child Left Behind.
As we prepare to celebrate Kabolas HaTorah, may we all merit to find our portion in the Torah, thoughts of which accompany us throughout our day keeping us connected to the One Who looked into the Torah and created the world.
For the Love of Another Jew
One of the frequent themes of this column is the potentially immense impact of individual good deeds, often in ways that could not possibly have been foreseen in advance. I discovered an amazing example in The Underground by Yaakov Astor, which I discussed two weeks ago.
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Chill of Monsey, an 11th-grade rebbe in Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch High School for Boys, was one of those shlichim sent by the Vaad L'Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel to the FSU. While in Moscow, he met a brilliant young student named Moshe and spent many hours discussing with him the basics of Judaism. As they parted, Rabbi Chill told Moshe to call him if he was ever in the States and gave him his phone number.
About six months later, Rabbi Chill received an afternoon call from Moshe, who told him that he had been granted an exit visa and was now an exchange student at Cornell University in upstate Ithaca. Moshe related how his tefillin had been confiscated by a border guard as he left the FSU, and that, in addition, he was without any kosher food and had no clue how to find it.
Rabbi Chill called his friend Rabbi Tzvi Goodman. Together they purchased a new set of tefillin for Moshe, a Russian-language siddur and other reading material, and loaded a car with enough kosher food for a month, before embarking on the four-hour drive to Ithaca. When they arrived, they found Moshe staring mournfully from the window of his dorm room at the students celebrating the end of spring semester on the campus below. But he brightened considerably when his friend appeared.
After a couple of hours seeing what they could do to help orient Moshe, the two men headed back for Monsey, arriving well after midnight. The next day Rabbi Chill explained to his shiur why he might be a bit exhausted in the hope that his story might someday be an example for one of his talmidim in how far we should go to help a fellow Jew.
A year later, Jeremy Strauss, who had been in Rabbi Chill's the shiur preceding year, rushed into Rabbi Chill's class one Sunday morning and exclaimed that he had to tell Rabbi Chill an unbelievable story from that Shabbos. His father and he had noticed an unfamiliar young man in their shul in Englewood and invited him home for the Shabbos meal. At the meal, he told them he was a recent ba'al teshuva.
And what had triggered his sudden interest in Judaism? At the end of spring semester the previous year at Cornell, he had been given a newly arrived Russian roommate for two nights. The new roommate had seemed totally lost and out of place, until two rabbis came loaded with food and books.
"I kept thinking all night that I had never seen anything like this. I must find out about the religion that creates such love for a fellow Jew. I began looking into what Judaism was all about and that's where the road to being observant began," the fresh ba'al teshuva explained.