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Rabbi Dovid Goldman

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Whose Torah Is It?

CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT: which of the following two approaches to learning Torah sounds like the better strategy? Option one: Begin with the foundations, principles and outlines of what the Torah is all about, then proceed to the next level with introductions to general mitzvah categories, such as the elements of belief, Shabbos and holidays, mishpatim and interpersonal relationships, and finally, begin filling in the myriad details and explanations as presented in the gemara. Option Two: Open a meseches, start from daf beis and keep learning as much as possible until everything starts coming together. Include Chumash, halacha and other subjects as needed.

Clearly, Option One makes more sense. Equally clear, however, is that Option Two is the traditional approach that has always been followed. One example:[1] the gemara says in the name of Rava, “A person should always learn the Torah first before starting to think about it, as it says ‘…rather, [his occupation shall be] in the Torah of Hashem, and in his Torah he shall think day and night’ (Tehillim 1:2)” (Avoda Zara 19a). The verse is taken to imply that Torah should be studied first as G-d’s word and only once it is “his” should one think about it and attempt to make sense of it.

Based on the same verse, in fact, Rava offers a related insight: “At the beginning of one’s learning, the Torah is known as G-d’s Torah, but eventually, it will be known as his own Torah, as the verse begins with ‘the Torah of Hashem’ and concludes with ‘his Torah.’”

When speaking about a “meaningful connection to Torah,” we are likely referring in large part to the successful transition from a distant relationship to Hashem’s Torah to a Torah that is meaningful and relevant to us on a personal level – thoroughly our own. It is a transition that, according to this gemara, is intended to evolve naturally, over time.

In recent centuries, however, it became necessary to introduce intensive efforts to facilitate this transition. Chasidus and mussar, as well as a renewed emphasis first on Torah lishma under Rav Chaim of Volozhin and later on intellectual analysis under Rav Chaim of Brisk, were designed in response to the many who were finding Torah learning to be dry and of questionable relevance to them.

In order to understand our generation’s relative connectedness to Hashem and to His Torah, we must explore whether we are successfully transitioning from Hashem’s Torah to “our” Torah. If a substantial percentage of our population is feeling disconnected, this is the fundamental challenge that must be explored. Solutions that are not based on this dynamic – that offer general inspiration and connection instead of personal connection to genuine Torah – will ultimately be treating the symptoms instead of the illness. They may be necessary efforts – and I believe there are many that are – but they will not be sufficient.

In seeking to understand the struggle to achieve and to promote an authentic connection, there are many, many areas to consider. I offer a discussion of one such area which I believe goes to the heart of the relationship between Yisrael and Torah.

The Torah Preceded the World – But Yisrael Preceded the Torah

There is a common distortion to the relationship between Yisrael and Torah which tends to create distance where there should be intimate connection. Many people believe that Jews exist to keep the Torah. This is simply untrue – it is precisely the reverse. The Torah exists for us – for Yisrael, to lift us up, to make us whole and to enable us to become such extraordinary beings that we can see our Creator “face to face.”

If this makes you uncomfortable, consider the words of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai in Midrash Koheles (1:4): “v’chi mi nivra bishvil mi? Torah bishvil Yisrael o Yisrael bishvil Torah? – Who was created for whom – Torah for the sake of Yisrael or Yisrael for the sake of the Torah? Lo Torah bishvil Yisrael? – Was it not Torah that was created for the sake of Yisrael?”[2]

And in fact, one of the first midrashim in the Torah (Midrash Rabba 1:4), after noting that Torah and the ‘Kisei Hakavod’ (the Great Throne) were created prior to the creation of the world, states that nevertheless, ‘machshavtan shel Yisrael kadma l’chol davar’ – the idea to create Yisrael preceded everything.” The Midrash offers a mashal of a King who bought things for his son before his son was born; so too, the Torah was created first, but only in anticipation of Yisrael’s need for it.

Perhaps the greatest damage caused by the misperception that Yisrael’s role is to serve the Torah, rather than the reverse, is that this misconception has turned our attention away from people. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, in Alei Shur, defines mussar as the “bridge that connects Torah to people.” We have lost this bridge – this connection – and without it, the average person fails to see himself within the Torah he is learning. Torah becomes detached from him and he becomes detached from it. As a result, the story of our generation has been about Torah learning in the abstract (e.g., daf yomi and the explosion of Lakewood) without being about people – an ultimately empty proposition.

One example: too many talmidim are driven by a fear of “bittul Torah” as an independent evil. Bittul Torah is a tragedy not because an obligation to Torah has not been met but because with those hours or minutes, you could have become a greater you and now that opportunity is lost – that bit of you is lost. Bittul Torah is evil only because it is a bittul of you.

If I could encourage one change in our thinking it would be to revive the primary emphasis on gadlus haadam (greatness of man) that was at the heart of the chinuch of almost all the gedolei Torah who built our yeshivos[3]. We must place people at the center of our attention – and that means, especially, recognizing them as they really are and striving to understand and meet their needs.

Today, we hardly think about people’s true personal needs. We focus on the “need” to be in a good yeshiva or seminary and the “need” to know how to learn a certain way, and the “need” to get a good shidduch and the “need” to live up to others’ expectations, etc. etc. These are actually merely chitzoniyus (appearances) and the focus on these external needs, therefore, represents a tragic bizayon haadam – a disgrace to the dignity of man, which is about his or her penimiyus (inner experience). If we are to turn a corner, I believe our educational institutions, especially at the more advanced levels, must focus their attention less on standards and expectations and more on the intrinsic, personal needs of their talmidim and on teaching talmidim about the personal needs of others – in all areas of life. When Rebbi Akiva and Hillel Hazaken taught that the great principle of the Torah was v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha and “don’t do unto others what you don’t like done to you,” they really meant it. Appreciation of Torah must begin with appreciation of people, no matter how much additional lomdus (analysis) you want to teach.

As a community, as parents, as principals, rabbeim and moros, we must look honestly at individuals and families, adults and children, and pay much closer attention to all their needs – their educational needs, social needs, psychological needs, emotional needs, future financial needs and of course, most of all, their spiritual needs. If we do not appreciate how good the Torah is for us – and how it is good for us – we will not have the drive it takes to learn and to grow as we must. If we don’t have a sense of direction in our lives, including how we will provide for ourselves and for our families, we cannot look forward to our future. And without these, we will not have the confidence we need to give Torah over to our children effectively. All these are basic needs that yeshivos used to recognize[4]; not meeting them is bittul Torah in its most tragic form.

We must not satisfy ourselves with giving over what we learned and assuming it will work for this generation as well, or with providing opportunities and assuming people will take advantage of them. This generation is not responding successfully because their basic needs are skipped over. If we care enough, we must reach out to them wherever they are holding. This would represent the greatest possible honor to the Torah, even if it results in a lesser focus on academic achievement.

Included in this is that each of us should be taking our own needs more seriously. If you need answers, seek them. If you need opportunities for self-expression, find them. If you’re not in a good place in your life, change something. One of the most basic human needs is the need to believe in yourself. Do not view your relationship to Torah and to Hashem as one of sacrifice or plain subservience. The Torah is here for you to become someone great. Sometimes that takes painful sacrifice and years of patience but someone should always be sure it is for your greater good. We have wasted far too much of our infinitely valuable time by failing to be honest about our basic needs. Every one of us deserves better.

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.

Rabbi Dovid Goldman is the managing editor of Klal Perspectives and works as an attorney in Baltimore, Maryland.

[1] Also, see related discussion there, as well as Shabbos 63a: Rav Kahana said, “I was 18 years old and had learned the whole Talmud but I did not know until now that [Torah] verses should be understood only according to their simple meaning (אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו). What does this teach us? That a person should learn first and then go back and think about it (דליגמר איניש והדר ליסבר)”. Also, see Rav Yaakov Weinberg Talks about Chinuch, p105-115, where he emphasizes the need to teach younger children specifically without explaining and analyzing and to continue this approach as much as possible.

[2] And listen to the Tanna d’vei Eliahu Rabba (14), “Rebbe, there are two things in the world which I love in my heart with an absolute love: Torah and Yisrael. But I don’t know which of them came first. And I said to him, my son, people tend to say Torah came first, for it says, ‘Hashem kanani reishit darko’ – ‘Hashem took me as His foremost way.’ But I tell them Yisrael came first, as it says, ‘kodesh Yisrael l’Hashem, reishis t’vuaso’ – Yisrael is holy to Hashem, His foremost ‘produce.’”

[3] Most of whom were students of, or heavily influenced by, the Slabodka Yeshiva and its Mashgiach – the original Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel.

[4] See Rav Ahron Lopiansky’s article in this issue explaining what changed.

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