Living With Our Learning
Bechukotai begins with the Torah telling us the conditions under which God will provide the Jewish people with peace and sustenance. "If you will go with My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them." (1) The commentaries note that the verse seems repetitive in that it uses three separate clauses that seem to involve keeping the Torah - what is the difference between each clause? Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains the first part of the verse, writes that, "If you will go with My decrees" refers to ameilut b'Torah (toiling in Torah).(2) The second part, "and observe My commandments" builds on the first, meaning, "you should toil in Torah in order to guard and fulfill it." (3) This means that the Torah first tells us that in order to receive reward we must toil in Torah, but it continues that the toiling must be with the intentions of keeping the Torah. There is a significant difficulty with this explanation - it implies that there exists the concept of 'toiling in Torah' without intending to actually keep the Torah. This is difficult to comprehend, because the very idea of toiling suggests a deep appreciation of the importance of Torah to the extent where someone is willing to push himself in order to understand the word of G-d as expressed in the Torah. We understand that sadly there are people who study the Torah in some form but with no intention of keeping it, however their exertion falls well short of toiling, because they do not value it enough to exert themselves to such a great extent. However, with regard to a person who genuinely toils in Torah how can it be possible that a person who is willing to toil in Torah will not be interested in keeping the Torah?!
The answer is that a person who puts in the effort to toil in Torah certainly must be interested in observing its commandments. The idea of toiling, but not in order to fulfill the mitzvot, refers to something else. One can learn Torah but not recognize that the Torah he learns is supposed to change him internally as a person. Such a person fails to make the connection between his learning and his Divine Service. He may well appreciate that learning Torah is a great mitzvah but he may not take the extra step and realize that the Torah that he learns should transform his behavior in all aspects of life. This is perhaps the kind of 'toiling' that the Torah alludes to as not being for the sake of fulfillment.
The same idea can be derived from the Mishna in Pirkei Avoà that discusses different possible motivations for why a person may learn Torah: "Of one who learns in order to teach, they enable him to learn and teach: Of one who learns in order to do, they enable him to learn, teach, guard and perform."(4) The commentaries point out that the Mishna implies that only the one who "learns in order to do" intends to actually keep the Torah, indicating that one who learns in order to teach has no interest in keeping the mitzvot. But if that is the case, such a person would not merit to learn and teach more. Indeed there are many Rabbinical sources that one who learns with no intention of keeping the Torah is viewed in a most severe manner. One may answer in the same vein as above - the person who learns in order to teach, is surely interested in keeping the Torah, for if it were not that way then he would indeed to not be rewarded at all for his learning. Rather, the one who "learns in order to teach" does not learn in order to change himself as a person. Only the one who "learns in order to do" realizes that the Torah he learns is supposed to transform him as a person and effect all his actions.
It is important to note that the concept of learning in order to change oneself is not limited to the learning of practical law. Indeed it is widely understood that the majority of one's learning time is usually more focused on learning Gemara which is not necessarily focused on learning what to do in every situation. The point is that all forms of learning, if approached correctly, have the power to transform a person into a more refined, spiritual being.
The Sfat Emes further demonstrates the centrality of this idea with a fascinating explanation of part of Birchat HaTorah.(6) We ask God, "v'haarev na HaShem, Elokeinu, et Divrei Toratecha..." This is normally translated as meaning, "please, HaShem, our God, make the Torah sweet...." The Sfat Emes observes that the word, 'v'haarev' is made up of the root letters, ayin, reish and beis, making the word 'erev'. This can mean 'to mix', for example the word, 'evening' is 'erev' in Hebrew - this refers to the fact that the evening is the time when the darkness begins to mix with the light. In this sense, the Sfat Emes explains that we are also asking God to mix in the Torah that we learn into our beings, so that it not remain as superficial knowledge.(7)
In this vein, the great Torah scholars placed great emphasis on the fact that Torah should permeate a person's being and affect his daily behavior. Rav Moshe Feinstein was once asked why the first Tractate of Gemara that boys learn is often Bava Kama, which deals with the laws of damages as opposed to more seemingly practical Tractates such as Berachot which discusses the laws of prayer. He explained that it is to imbue the children at an early stage of their life with sensitivity to the property of other people. Thus we see that it was obvious to Rav Feinstein that the purpose of the children's learning was far greater than merely giving them knowledge, it was supposed to make them more thoughtful people.
We have seen how important it is to ensure that the Torah we bring into our heads also goes into our hearts and come out through our behavior. The first stage in succeeding in this task is simply to acknowledge that the Torah we learn should make us into different people, and to observe if this is the case. A second possible approach is that after one has learnt a piece of Torah, he should think about what this Torah taught him about how God looks at the world, and to try to integrate that attitude into his own outlook.(8)
A diligent Torah student once proudly told his Rebbe that he had gone through the entire Shas.(9) The Rebbe answered him, "but has Shas gone through you?!" May we all merit to learn and do in the full sense of the word.
1. Vayikra, 26:3.
2. This refers to a far greater exertion of effort than the idea of simply 'learning Torah'.
3. Rashi, Vayikra, 26:3. The third clause, "and perform them" refers to actually doing the Mitzvos.
4. Avos, 4:6.
5. See Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos, 4:6.
6. These are the blessings that we say once a day before learning Torah.
7. Heard from Rav Moshe Weinberger shlit"a.
8. Heard from my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlit"a.
9. Shas is a common term used to describe the entirety of the Talmud.