Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 9 January 2021 / 25 Tevet 5781

Learning Torah (Part 3)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

Life is short, and it is up to you to make it sweet!

(Sarah Louise Delany)

“Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to occupy ourselves with words of the Torah. Please, Hashem, our G-d, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth and in the mouth of Your people, the family of Israel. May we and our offspring and the offspring of Your people, the House of Israel, all of us, know Your Name and study Your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who teaches Torah to His people, Israel.”

The blessing then continues with a plea that we “know Your Name” and that we merit studying Torah “for its own sake.” Rabbi Shimon Schwab elucidates that the first request is that we become completely conversant with the Written Torah. In the Kabbalistic texts, the Written Torah is described as being composed of numerous combinations of different Names of G-d. That is why we ask G-d to allow us to “know Your Name.” The second part — that we learn Torah “for its own sake” — is a reference to the Oral Torah.

However, the more traditional understanding of studying Torah “for its own sake” is that it is a description of the optimal way that the Torah should be learned. In Ethics of the Fathers (6:2) Rabbi Meir teaches,“Whoever occupies himself with Torah study for its own sake merits many things. Additionally, the entire Creation is justified for his sake alone.” What an extraordinary statement!

Fascinatingly enough, the exact definition ofstudying Torah “for its own sake” is the source of great debate among the authorities. What links the various opinions is that “for its own sake” means learning Torah in such a way that it draws us closer to G-d. That is why Rabbi Chaim from Volozhin (1749-1821), the undisputed leader of Lithuanian Jewry in his generation, writes in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers, Ruach Chaim, “The more one learns, the more one wants to learn. By means of the light that one has already realized, one can see that there is even more light — and one can hope to realize that, too.”

And that, perhaps, is the most beautiful dimension of all with regards to Torah learning. There is no end to what can be studied and internalized. The Torah is truly infinite, both in its depth and its breadth. It is wondrous to watch the absolute delight and desire as an accomplished and universally acclaimed expert in the entirety of the Talmud opens a volume — any volume — and begins to plumb its profundities again. Notwithstanding the fact that he has reviewed and deliberated the timeless pages countless times in the past, it is studied with a freshness and an eagerness as if it is being learned for the very first time. Because, as our Sages teach, it is inconceivable that there will not be a new and novel idea that will surface as it is being studied yet again (see Tractate Chagigah 3a).

In fact, so all-encompassing is the study of Torah that Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the venerated head of the legendary Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, explains that it even has an influence on a person’s face. He related that his Rabbi and mentor, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953), one of the most prominent Jewish thinkers in the previous generation, used to say that he could tell, just by looking at a person’s face, whether that person had learned Torah that day or not. Rabbi Edelstein recounted that his brother once asked Rabbi Dessler whether he could see if he had learned that day. Rabbi Dessler answered that he saw that he had. Surprisingly, his brother responded that it was not so, and that he had not yet had the opportunity to learn that day. Rabbi Dessler told him to think carefully about everything he had done so far that day. As his brother started reviewing his day, he suddenly remembered that he had spent a few fleeting moments, much earlier in the day, sharing a Torah thought with someone. Incredibly enough, those few moments had left a spiritual impression on his face that Rabbi Dessler was able to identify.

Our blessing closes with the words, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who teaches Torah to His people, Israel.”

Why is G-d described here as the “Teacher of Torah”? The Talmud clarifies that when a person learns Torah “for its own sake,” G-d, Himself, helps that person to understand (see Tractate Sanhedrin 99b). Rashi, the foremost commentary on the Talmud, points out that it is the words of Torah themselves that beseech G-d to allow the person who is learning them to be granted insights into their deeper and more esoteric meanings. And this is why the blessing describes G-d as the “Teacher of Torah.” Ultimately, it is G-d Who is imparting the eternal lessons.

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