Talmud Torah – It's Also a Mitzvah
The distinguished Mashgiach who guides a mussar vaad I attend made an interesting observation in preparation for Shavuos. If someone were to ask us after Shachris why we put on tefillin, we would likely answer because it is a mitzvah to do so. Yet if someone were to enter the beis medrash and ask us why we are learning Torah, he would likely receive a very different sort of answer.
We might begin by emphasizing the qualitative difference between Torah knowledge and any other form of knowledge that Chazal were at pains to stress: "If you hear that there is wisdom among the nations, believe it. If you hear that there is Torah among the nations do not believe it" (Midrash Eichah 2:13).
And we might continue by explaining how Torah knowledge is distinct in at least three ways: in terms of the closeness to Hashem achieved while learning; in terms of the effect of Torah learning on both the individual involved and the world; and in terms of the type of knowledge conveyed.
Through the study of Torah – and the study of Torah alone – we attach ourselves to the Divine Will. As Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin writes, "Through the study of Torah one cleaves to the Divine Will. . . . That is the meaning of the Zohar in several places that HaKadosh Baruch Hu and the Torah are one." And throughout the Fourth Gate of Nefesh HaChaim, Rav Chaim describes the manner in which the study of Torah opens the conduits of influence and berachah from the supernal realms to our own.
Or as the Ramchal puts it, other works may contain "accurate and valuable information," but they lack any power "to incorporate any significance and excellence into the soul of the [reader and] . . . absolutely no power to rectify Creation."
Finally, Torah is the complete expression of the goals for which Hashem has placed us in the world. All other forms of knowledge exist only as means to attain the ends that the Torah reveals.
ALL THIS WE MIGHT tell our questioner. But the one thing that we would be unlikely to tell him in explanation of why we are learning Torah is: Because it's a mitzvah, as it says, "The Book of Torah shall not depart from your mouth; rather you should contemplate it day and night . . . " (Yehoshua 1:8).
And it is perfectly understandable that we would not respond by citing the mitzvah. For to do so would be so inadequate to convey what Torah learning means to us. For not only is it qualitatively different from all other forms of knowledge, but also from every other mitzvah – v'Talmud Torah k'neged kulam.
On Shavuos, our goal is contemplate the magnitude of the gift of Torah at Sinai. That moment was the fulfilment of the purpose of Creation. But for our acceptance of the Torah, the world would have returned to tohu v'vohu, and should Torah learning cease for even a single moment, it would still do so. Without Torah, we are, in the homely moshol, like fish out of water.
Yet it is also important to not lose sight of the basics: the study of Torah is a mitzvah. This might be compared to Moshe Rabbeinu's rebuke to the bnei Yisrael for their fear of hearing Hashem's voice at Sinai – "If we continue to hear the voice of Hashem, our G-d, any longer, we will die" (Devarim 5:24) Moshe Rabbeinu reproached the nation for that fear: He felt that their love of Hashem and His Torah should have overcome any fears of dying. But Hashem told Moshe: "[T]hey did well in all that they spoke. Who can assure that this heart should remain theirs, to fear Me and observe all My commandments all the days . . . ." (Devarim 5:25-6).
The ahavas Hashem that Moshe Rabbeinu sought from the nation is more difficult to maintain than yiras Hashem; it is at once more ecstatic and more subject to waxing and waning. But reverence and awe can be constant, and therefore must remain the bedrock of mitzvah observance.
OUR APPROACH TO TORAH STUDY MUST be similar. Certainly, we need to strive to internalize the feeling that we are transforming both worlds and ourselves every time we learn. But we must not lose sight of the mitzvah aspect either.
That is particularly important for those of us no longer engaged in full-time Torah study. That itself need not fill us with unhealthy guilt feelings – "Many did as Rabbi Yishmael and were successful." But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us could find some more time in the day when no patur (exemption) from learning exists – we are neither earning a living, nor guiding our children, nor being attentive to our spouses, nor attending to our health, nor engaged in tzarchei tzibbur.
If we only focus on the most elevated aspects of Torah study, we might just pick up the newspaper and decide to forego opening the conduits of blessing at that moment or even transforming ourselves. Precisely at those moments, remembering that Talmud Torah is a mitzvah incumbent upon us whenever there is no patur can be the most helpful.
That mitzvah, the Mashgiach encouraged us, is something upon which we should reflect when we recite bircas Hatorah or the blessings of ahavah rabbah or ahavas olam.
The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown Down
Here's an interesting question worth pondering on Shavuos. If there were convincing evidence that a large percentage of Israeli Jews are interested in learning Torah and increasing their Torah knowledge, would we be thrilled and rush to do what we can to slake the thirst? Or in our heart of hearts have we grown comfortable with the belief that secular Jews have no interest at all, and therefore we are free to carry on as before tending our own garden?
I assume that virtually all Mishpacha readers would fall into the first category. But I do not completely discount the power of inertia.
Well, for better or worse, depending on how you answered the questions above, there are plenty of indications of that interest in learning Torah. Some are familiar: the thousands of avreichim who are learning weekly with a secular or traditional chavrusah under the auspices of Lev L'Achim; the thousands of children from non-observant homes being registered for Chinuch Atzmai schools every year again via Lev L'Achim, the success of the couples placed on kibbutzim by Ayelet HaShachar, and the creation of the SHUVU network from scratch.
Nor is that interest confined to the so-called traditional population, as is sometimes claimed. Last week, I had the privilege of emceeing (if there is such a word) a dinner in honor of Kesher Yehudi upon the organization's receipt of the Jerusalem Unity Prize for 2016.
Over the last seven years, Kesher Yehudi has set up over 6,000 learning chavrutot. But the prize was awarded primarily for its more recent work with pre-induction academies, and the primary advocate for the organization in the prize committee deliberations was General Benny Gantz, the previous chief of staff. The pre-induction academies attract some of the most idealistic of Israeli Jewish youth. They commit an extra year before army service to an intensive focus on Israeli and Jewish identity, and a high percentage go on to become officers in the IDF.
Kesher Yehudi's involvement with the pre-induction academies started with single academy about five years ago, and consisted primarily of programming around the chagim. Today eight academies are in the full program, involving a monthly yom iyun and a chavrusa for every mechina (academy) student, with another three mechinot slated to join next year. And the academies have approached Kesher Yehudi to join, not vice versa. That could only have happened if the fifty to sixty students in each mechinah annually have felt that they gained greatly from participating in the Kesher Yehudi program
Prior to the dinner, I sat with Moshe Shachor, who oversees the program. During the day, he learns in an Israeli kollel in Aish HaTorah. He explained that much of the study material employed in the program is based on Rabbi Noach Weinberg's Torah. The topics of the yamei iyun deal with what it means to be a person of faith, prayer, the meaning of love and v'ahavta l'reieyecha k'mocha, and the like, not such hardy perennials as army service (though no doubt the chavrusos also talk about the latter between the yamei iyun).
The night we spoke Shachor told me of a young man in Mechina Yerushalmi in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, whose chavrusah is a young avreich in the neighborhood, which has seen a good deal of tension between young chareidi families and older secular residents in recent years. Over the course of the year, they have learned one-on-one in a local beis medrash at least eight times, apart from the framework of monthly yamei iyun and regular phone contact, at the initiative of the secular partner.
The next night, Moshe called me again very excited. The members of the Mechina Yerushalmi had been given the assignment of designing a special experience for themselves, and one young man decided he wanted to experience a day in the life of a kollel yungeman. He and his chavrusah had already planned everything – e.g., haneitz minyan, getting the kids off to school and gan in the morning, the Mirrer Yeshiva bus, first seder in Mirrer, return home to greet kids coming home from gan and cheder, afternoon kollel.
At the dinner itself, I interviewed two young lawyers, Avner Slater and Itai Kraidan, who have been learning together for three years, and have thus far completed Chumash twice and Pirkei Avos with the Maharal's commentary. The "sometimes secular" Kraidan described how there is a weekly parashah shiur in his Tel Aviv law firm, Israel's largest.
He asked to make a final statement, which I'm going to quote in full because I think it puts every Torah Jew in Israel on notice of our responsibilities and should give us hope as we prepare to re-experience Matan Torah k'ish echad b'lev echad:
I believe in this [chavruta] project with my whole heart. The high walls that have been built here have to disappear and fade away.
The Torah is the glue that binds us all – every Jew in every place he is found.
The Torah doesn't belong to one group or another. We all want to learn, and we all can learn. There is no reason why every Jew should not learn Torah.
Torah brings a person closer to his Creator. And I have no doubt that if every Jew will learn Torah we will be a glorious nation.