Hunger for the Word of God

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

 

Adapted by Yitzchak Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

One of the obligations of any person, and of a Jew in particular, is that of self-examination and self-assessment.  Each one of us is required, from time to time, to take stock of his path, to locate defects, problems and phenomena requiring correction, and to deal with them. 

 

In practice, this self-assessment has two levels, each of which must be addressed individually. First, the problematic phenomena must be identified; second – at the same time, and no less importantly – the roots that led to those problems must be examined.  A person who wishes to do the job properly cannot suffice with pointing out to himself the weeds in his garden; he must work hard to locate the roots that nourished those nasty end-products.

 

Thus, for example, a person who discovers that his prayer is not what it should be, must try to understand why this is so.  The inferior character of his prayer is in itself a defect in the fulfillment of the mitzva to pray and to serve God in general, but perhaps an in-depth investigation of this phenomenon will reveal a far more fundamental flaw, of which the shallowness of his prayer represents only the tip of the iceberg.  The same applies to a person who discovers that his Shabbat table does not look the way he wants it to: he must find out whether this is a local problem or whether it reflects a general dryness of personality, or a deficient understanding of the value of Shabbat.  In most cases, grappling with the sources of the problem is more difficult and requires much greater effort; at the same time, it also gives rise to findings that are much more worrying than those that emerge from a superficial tackling of just the external problems.

 

This analysis is valid concerning any problem or flaw that a person discovers in his personality, but it is true most of all in relation to Torah study.  One of the most striking characteristics of Torah study is the need for absolute devotion: Torah study requires hard work, toil, and conscientiousness; a person who discovers that he has a problem with his learning must ask whether this problem may perhaps testify to a wider phenomenon that requires attention in its own right.  If a person does not invest the maximum that he is able, in terms of energy and time, in intensive study, as he is required to do – then, aside from dealing with the deficiency in his fulfillment of the actual mitzva of Torah study, he must also investigate what psychological or philosophical basis gave rise to the deficiency. 

 

Chazal regard the mitzva of Torah study as an exceptionally important one.  Torah study gives its students more than just knowledge; it molds their personalities and turns them into "benei Torah."  When Torah study is fragmented and limping, rather than continuous and enthusiastic, the desired effect of the study on the personality of the student is delayed, or even prevented altogether.  The phenomenon is severe in its own right, for the nature of Torah is such that it is forgotten by those who abandon it.  But we must also turn our attention to the possible roots of superficial study.

 

Theoretically, the poisoned roots of superficial Torah study are likely to be found in three main areas.  First, it is possible that the person is learning half-heartedly because his entire personality is half-hearted.  Such a person lacks initiative in attacking any subject in which he is involved; his general behavior is characterized by apathy and complacency.  If this is the situation, then we are not discussing a flaw that is unique to the sphere of Torah study, or to the intellectual realm, but rather a flaw that embraces the person's entire personality.  Every person is created in God's image, and in order for him to realize the destiny for which he was created, he is given creative abilities.  In order to realize the Godly image within him, a person is required to make his personality dynamic, alive, vital.  Anyone who fails to do so is insulting the Godly image within him and failing in the mission that the Creator has entrusted to him.

 

In the event of superficial study not resulting from a superficial personality, it may arise out of laziness.  Such a person is not prepared to invest effort and work hard; he prefers the road that appears short, which is in reality long.  This problem, too, is not related specifically to Torah study, but rather testifies to a flaw that is gnawing at the moral essence of the student.  Laziness is a moral and religious flaw, for a person who succumbs to laziness – like his apathetic and complacent neighbor – is wasting the image of God within him, thereby violating God's faith in him. The Holy One did not bestow abilities on him so that they would rust with disuse.

 

Aside from complacency and indolence, which are general personality flaws, perhaps we can pinpoint problems that arise specifically in the area of Torah learning.  Our prayers and blessings frequently mention Torah study, thereby illustrating the centrality and importance of this occupation in the life of a believing Jew.  Each and every day we testify that the words of the Torah "are our life and the length of our days," and we promise that "we shall contemplate them day and night."  In our Grace after Meals, we thank God for "Your Torah which You have taught to us, and for Your statutes which You have made known to us."  Three times every day we ask, "Grant us wisdom, understanding, and knowledge," or "knowledge, understanding, and intelligence."  There can be no doubt that a believing Jew's entire lifestyle revolves around the knowledge that Torah study is the elixir of life. 

 

However, a person can exhibit a certain attitude outwardly, while harboring an altogether different – even opposite – inner psychological feeling.  The same person who declares, "For they are our life and the length of our days," sometimes even singing, "How I love Your Torah; all the day it occupies me" – this same person sometimes lacks the existential feeling, the inner conviction, that without Torah he is forlorn.  The sense of connection with the Torah and its study arises from the understanding that Torah is the word of God, and occupation with it is connecting to God Himself, and from the knowledge that only cleaving to Him Who created man can give life its meaning.  A person's entire life must revolve around the knowledge that only "those who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, this day" (Devarim 4:4), and that a person who does not cleave to God has something missing from his life.

 

The weakness in internalizing the sense of cleaving to Torah may arise from two sources. First, it may be that the person is not convinced that the Torah is God's word.  In most cases, the problem is not one of an intellectual questioning of faith, but rather a deficiency in the internal conviction that involvement in Torah, with all its parts and aspects, is indeed the highway to connection with the Holy One. 

 

Second, in cases where the awareness of Torah as God's word is not weak, then shallow learning may arise from a deficiency in one's connection to God.  Such a person does not regard connecting to God as the key to all his aspirations; he does not feel that sitting in God's house is the pinnacle of his longings.  Instead of investing effort of Torah study, he prefers to engage in other areas, which he finds more interesting and challenging.  Such a person regards himself as a religious Jew, but he does not feel God's word as a fire burning within him.  His personality does not revolve around his connection with God and His service; his attitude towards the Creator's word does not occupy the central place that it should in his inner, existential world.

 

These two factors – lack of inner conviction that the Torah is God's word, and a deficient connection with God – may dilute one's motivation to study seriously and intensely.  In such a case, even if one sits in a beit midrash all day, the title "ben Torah" rings hollow.  A true ben Torah must be hungry for Torah learning.  At the end of days, Amos prophesies, "I shall send a hunger in the land: not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of God" (Amos 8:11).  There are, today, many complacent and self-satisfied yeshiva students who lack the existential hunger described by Amos.  These students suffice with what they already know, and are happy with what they have already achieved; they are missing the drive to continue learning and growing spiritually. 

 

A ben Torah must want to learn the entire Torah, and must aspire to know all of its intricacies.  He dare not suffice with little – neither qualitatively nor quantitatively.  This is the portion and the task of God's servants: the will to attain mastery of Torah.  Obviously, a person who feels severe hunger – and youthful students are likely to feel severe hunger more than their older colleagues – should give expression to this hunger.  If "he desires God's Torah," then the conclusion is that "he will contemplate His Torah day and night" (Tehillim 1:2). 

 

To be a ben yeshiva means to be hungry – but also, on the other hand, to be sated.  The ideal ben Torah is hungry for God's word, but at the same time satisfied with his lot; he thanks God for every minute that he merits to spend in the beit midrash.  We dwellers of the beit midrash must appreciate the fact that we have merited to be among the small core of people who devote their entire being to Torah.  "Happy are we; how good is our portion, how pleasant is our lot!" A person who is given the possibility of contemplating Torah and does not make the most of it is apparently not to be counted among those who "desire God's Torah."

 

Obviously, there must be a balance between Torah study and all of one's other commitments, whether familial, social or personal; but so far as one is able, the will to learn Torah should claim the bulk of a person's energies. If this is not the case, it indicates a deficiency in one's connection to Torah.  The Torah directs the command to learn Torah especially to the king, who is occupied, throughout most of his day, with the commitments of his position and of the kingdom.  If the king himself is commanded, "You shall read in it all the days of your life" (Devarim 17:19), then how much more so is a regular citizen obligated to study Torah every moment that he can!  The Midrash recounts that King David declared that at every moment his legs would lead him to the beit midrash (Vayikra Rabba 35, 1).  We may assume that in practice, owing to his busy schedule, David did not manage to devote himself to Torah for many hours of the day.  But the midrash places the emphasis on his will and aspiration, rather than his actual learning; the inclination of David's heart led him to the beit midrash.  "One thing I ask of God; this I request: that I may sit in God's house all the days of my life, to gaze at the pleasantness of God and to visit in His Sanctuary" (Tehillim 27:4).

 

Our obligation to learn Torah is not fulfilled through attending study sessions.  The meaning of this obligation is a total attack; it is a constant desire, which is carried out – because of various circumstances – only intermittently.  Judaism is built upon great aspirations, but – at the same time – small demands: a half-hour here and there, visits to the beit midrash at irregular hours, and care to keep the learning continuous.  The Torah formulates the aim of a believing Jew as a lofty aspiration: "You shall sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy" (Vayikra 11:44), but the Oral Law breaks this command down into its tiniest details: "This refers to washing of the hands before and after meals" (Berakhot 53b). 

 

The world of Torah is built upon an all-encompassing view that may be broken down into a list of small commands.  Through these commands, and on the detailed path that the Torah sets down, let us try to satiate the constant hunger that should always assail us: the hunger for God's word.

 

[This sicha was delivered at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Iyar 5761 (2001).]