For the week ending 18 November 2006 / 27 Heshvan 5767

Sharing Torah, Tailing Lions

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Simon in England
Dear Rabbi,
I have been studying Torah close to two years. I am currently learning in an environment with relative beginners. Even though they are enthusiastic, I feel I have little patience to hear their ideas when I have already learned them before. Do I have to listen, or since it’s a waste of my time, can’t I just say I already know the Torah idea they’re saying and go on with my own learning?
Dear Simon,

I commend you on your close to two-year commitment to learn Torah. May you have many more years of learning and fulfilling it with joy.

As I’m sure you’ve learned in your years of Torah study, a very integral part of learning Torah with joy is to share the learning experience with others.

Isolating oneself from others may lead one to arrogance and might also result in inaccurate, incomplete or even wrong understanding of the Torah. In this vein our Sages taught, “The Torah can only be acquired by learning with others, as is in the verse ‘A sword is upon the badim (a Hebrew word implying separateness) and they shall become foolish; a sword is upon its mighty men, and they shall become dismayed’ (Jer. 50:36). From this we learn that a sword is placed upon Torah scholars who learn alone…and what’s more, they become foolish…and what’s even more, they are transgressing…” (Berachot 63b).

Furthermore, one’s learning should be directed toward teaching others and learning from them in the process. This is the spirit behind the teachings: “Who is wise? One who learns from every man” (Avot 4:1); “Much I have learned from my rabbis, even more from my colleagues, and the most from my students” (Ta’anit 7a); “One who learns in order to do, is given the opportunity to learn, teach, observe and do” (Avot 4:5).

Learning in order to “do” includes learning in order to do acts of kindness. These acts of kindness should also be performed by teaching Torah to others and listening to their ideas as well. Thus our Sages, commenting on the verse “the kindness of Torah is on her lips” asked: Is there a Torah that is kind, and a Torah that is not kind? To which they reply that the kindness of Torah is referring to teaching others (Succah 51a).

Given all the above, if you are in a position that you know relatively more Torah than those around you, you should not separate yourself from the group; rather you should humbly share your knowledge and guide them along the Torah path. This is a very difficult task since there is an inclination to lure one into being arrogant, condescending and impatient with others. Therefore you should be careful to listen to what they have to say, share in their enthusiasm, and thereby make them feel good about themselves and the Torah they are learning. This is another way to express the kindness of Torah.

In addition, the fact that people share with you Torah ideas that you already know should not be a source of aggravation at all. Imagine a child repeating a very basic parsha point he learned in school – or even alef-bet – to his father. Would his father say, “Oh you’re just learning that now? That’s real basic kid, I learned that twenty years ago.” Of course not! He would be thrilled and overjoyed to hear his beloved son repeat the words of Torah he so loves. In a non-condescending way, the same should apply here as well. One who truly loves his fellow Jew and the Torah should be overjoyed when someone learns something new in Torah and wants to share it with others.

In fact, if we are really sensitive to others, we can learn something new even if they’re saying something we “already know”. Our Sages taught, “Just as people’s faces are different, so their ideas are different”. Just as no two people look exactly alike, every person’s ideas, way of thinking, insights and way of expressing is novel. If we listen to others with humility and patience, we most certainly can enjoy viewing a familiar idea in a fresh new way that may open facets, or even vistas that we simply hadn’t seen.

We repeat this teaching twice daily in the “Shema”: “And it will be, if you hearkened you will hearken (shamoa tishmeu) to My commandments that I command you this day…” (Deut. 11:13). Rashi comments on the peculiar twice-mentioned “hearken” and emphasized “this day”: “If you hearken to the old [i.e., if you study what you have already learned], you will hearken to the new [i.e., you will have a new and deeper understanding]…and “this day” suggests that the commandments should always be to you as new, as though you had just heard them on this very day (Sifrei 11:32)”.

That being said, I must qualify that the above applies in general, and particularly as long as you remain in your current situation. However, you are certainly encouraged to find a more challenging learning environment. This is evident in the following teaching: “Rabbi Matya the son of Charash would say, Be first to greet every man. Be a tail to lions, rather than a head to foxes” (Avot 4:15). At first glance, the juxtaposition seems odd, but in reality it may apply very well to you. As long as you are in a situation where your learning is above others, you must be humble and kind. But you should strive to be in a place where you’re tailing lions instead.

May God open our eyes and hearts to constantly appreciate the novelty of His Torah, and I hope to see you soon here in Yeshivat Ohr Somayach!

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