Make Your Torah Permanent: The Centrality of Torah Study

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

 

DEVELOPING A TORAH PERSONALITY

Yeshivat Har Etzion

 


Based on addresses by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler

 

 

LECTURE #4

Make Your Torah Permanent:

The Centrality of Torah Study

 

The mishna in Avot (1:15) states: “Shammai says: Make your Torah keva.” This saying can take on several meanings, depending on how we understand the term keva, and I think that each of these meanings teaches us something important about being a Jew and a ben-Torah.

 

MAKE TORAH A PERMANENT FEATURE

Rashi offers two explanations of Shammai’s dictum:

 

1. You should not set aside times for Torah, but rather you should make it keva (permanent) the entire day.

2. Set yourself times to learn four or five chapters every day.

 

            Rashi is not talking about a person who spends his entire day, or even most of it, learning. But in terms of this person’s attitude, his desire, what he would do were he divested of other responsibilities—he makes Torah primary. He yearns for Torah; he has never given up on it; he has never set it aside. It is always, somehow, at least subliminally, part of his agenda.

 

            This is the sense of Rashi’s first interpretation—do not “set aside” time for Torah, like you set aside time for tennis. Rather, make it a permanent, important factor around which your day revolves. How much you will actually be able to learn depends upon circumstances: where you are, what other responsibilities you have, etc. But in terms of your attitude, your commitment to Torah is rock-solid; it is the framework through which you view your life.

 

FIX TIMES FOR TORAH

Though a person may thirst for Torah, this longing still needs to be translated into practical terms. If you remain with nothing more than this general thirst, it is entirely conceivable that nothing will come of it—it will remain hazy and fuzzy, but will not translate into actual talmud Torah.

 

            This is where the second element in Rashi comes to the fore: “Set aside time to learn four or five chapters a day.” While you should set no upper limit to your learning, surely you cannot make do without setting a lower limit, a daily minimum. In order to give firmness to your commitment to Torah, you must set minimal designated times for learning.

 

            Thus, Rashi’s two explanations do not contradict each other. The latter gives you a minimal real framework. The former gives you a direction, a thirst, a longing, without setting any kind of upper limit.

 

PRIORITY IN TERMS OF VALUES

The Rambam offers a similar understanding:

 

Make talmud Torah primary and all your other activities secondary; if you can engage in [the other activities], fine, and if not, not. (Commentary on the Mishna, ad loc.)

 

Torah is the root and basis of your existence, and all else is built around it. Here the Rambam surely is not talking about the quantitative element. Rather, he is talking about the axiological element, about one’s values: What is central and what is peripheral? To the extent that it is possible for you to plan, which element is dominant and which is subservient?

 

            It may be that the axiological centrality of Torah will not necessarily translate into its being quantitatively that to which you devote most of your time. When one plans his personal budget, or when a government plans a national budget, there is little disposable income left after one has factored in the various expenses of the necessities of life. Similarly, after one factors in the time he must devote to fulfilling his responsibilities and obligations, how much “free time” is left? But the test is precisely what a person does with whatever time is left to him. He doesn’t have a choice about going to work; he has to make a living. But when he comes home, he can decide whether to read the paper and watch television or whether to sit down to learn. Here the question of what is primary and what is secondary comes to the fore.

 

            It is also critical how a person defines his professional and economic goals. If a person says he must work twelve hours a day because he has decided that he absolutely must earn several hundred thousand dollars a year, and then he says, “Whatever is left over will be for Torah”—that decision itself reflects his priorities. But if he sets a reasonable level of need and of necessity, and that is legitimately set aside, then the question of what he does with his remaining time comes into play.

 

            There are halakhic implications to this question. The gemara (Bava Batra 7b) rules that talmidei chakhamim (Torah scholars) are exempt from paying municipal taxes. Rosh (1:26) says that a talmid chakham is defined as a person whose Torah is his occupation (torato umanuto). Today we think of this in terms of someone whose profession it is to learn Torah, someone who does nothing else. But Maharam of Rothenberg (cited in Responsa of the Rosh, 15:8) says that it doesn’t mean this at all. Torato umanuto applies even if a person spends most of his day at work, but his natural bent is to learn Torah. When he has a free hour, he devotes it to Torah; when he has a vacation, he uses it to learn Torah. That is torato umanuto—his natural self realizing itself. When he is at work and cannot learn, he is, in a sense, suppressing his natural bent.

 

NOT TRANSITORY

Thus far, we have spoken of “Aseh toratekha keva” in two senses: 1) making Torah primary in terms of values, and regarding our relation to Torah—and to God via Torah—as all-pervasive in our lives; 2) making it a fixed element of our day, with the attendant commitment and discipline. But there is yet another sense of keva which is implied in a baraita:

 

Aseh toratekha keva”—how so? This teaches that if a person heard something from a sage in the beit ha-midrash, he should not regard it as transient but rather as permanent. And what a person has learned, he must do and teach others to do, as it says (Devarim 5:1), “You shall learn them and keep them to do them.” And so it says of Ezra (7:10), “He prepared his heart to study the Torah of God and to perform it,” and afterwards it says, “And to teach statute and justice in Israel.” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 13:2)

 

            Here we are not contrasting keva with that which is tafel, minor and secondary, but rather with that which is ara’i, transient or transitory, a passing experience. The beraita here speaks of this at two levels.

 

            The latter portion of the beraita presents Ezra as an example of someone who made Torah keva. What was it that Ezra did? Above all, Ezra ensured the permanence of Torah. During his time, the Jews returning from the Babylonian exile had a very tenuous relationship to Torah. Chazal tell us (Tanna De-bei Eliyahu Rabba, Chapter 31) that when the Jews went into exile in Babylonia, they came to the prophet Yechezkel and said, “We are now exempt from Torah and mitzvot, because a slave whose master has sold him is no longer obligated to do the master’s bidding.” The prevalent conception in classical antiquity was that religion was only a function of geography and society: you worship the local gods of the country and society in which you find yourself. All the more so was this the feeling among the Jews in exile, since their entire national fabric had seemed to disintegrate. When they went to Babylonia, they felt that they were finished with avodat Hashem. (The Ramban [Shabbat 88a] says that the re-acceptance of Torah in Persia about which we read in Megillat Esther—“kiyyemu ve-kibbelu”—came partly in response to this.)

 

            We read in the books of Ezra and Nechemia that there was a great deal of assimilation and intermarriage among the Jews in Babylonia. Moreover, those who returned to Israel were certainly not of the more established strata, nor members of the intellectual or social elite. Ezra was faced with a tremendous challenge: to ensure that Torah would become permanent within that community. He made it clear that Torah is part of the essence of Klal Yisrael; it is not dependent upon geography, history or society—it is keva, permanent and essential. He did not just explain and extend Torah through rabbinic enactments, but saw to it that the people understood that adherence to Torah was not negotiable; it is part of what being Klal Yisrael means.

 

            This is what Ezra did, and this is what each person needs to do within his own environment, as part of his or her historical and social responsibility. If you have learned some Torah, “ya’aseh viyelammed acher”—observe it and teach it to others. If you are in a community where Torah is in danger of disappearing, see to it that it does not disappear. Make it kavu’a. Make it clear that there is no vanishing American, English or French Jew. Judaism is here to stay. It is your responsibility to make it clear to yourself and to others that Torah and avodat Hashem are the very backbone of Judaism. Prove that all the sociological projections about the end of the Jewish people are nonsense. We are keva.

 

INTERNALIZING TORAH

However, before we get to this level, the baraita speaks of something else:

 

If a person heard something from a sage in the beit ha-midrash, he should not regard it as transient but rather as permanent.

 

            What does this mean? There are certain facets of our experience that we regard as being peripheral and temporal; we lose no sleep over the fact that they are nothing more than that. They may be pleasant at the time, but you do not expect them to become a permanent aspect of your being. Does a person make any effort to remember what he reads in the newspaper? When you read it, you think it is important to know what is going on in the world. But unless you are a professional historian or an archivist, you do not really care whether you remember what happened ten years ago.

 

            There are other experiences which are somewhat on the borderline between what you want to be permanent and what is ephemeral. Maybe you do not care if you remember what you read in the paper, but if you read a serious magazine, you may want to remember it. There are people who save their copies of The Atlantic Monthly or Commentary for many years. You would be happy to remember what you read in those magazines, and you would not feel that it is cluttering your mind—but you are not going to make a great effort to remember it. Similarly, a person who goes to see a play will probably regard it differently than he would the evening news, but he will not make the kind of effort to remember that a theater critic would in order to be able to analyze and compare it.

 

            But there are things to which a person is committed to the degree that he wants them to be part of him. When he has that kind of experience, he wants it to be internalized, not to remain ephemeral. This is what the baraita tells us with regard to Torah. “Aseh toratkha keva”—see to it that it is ingrained and absorbed, that it becomes a part of you. This, of course, has implications for the nature of the experience at the time. A person who hears a symphony and wants it to become part of his musical repertoire will listen to it differently than a person for whom it is only so much background music. It is a different kind of exposure and experience; there is a certain intensity and seriousness. If you want something to remain with you, you must immerse yourself in it.

 

            The gemara (Shabbat 31a) says that a person after his death is asked by the Heavenly tribunal: “Kavata ittim la-Torah, Did you set fixed times for Torah?” Similarly, the Rambam places great emphasis on this:

 

Every Israelite man is obligated in Torah study, whether he is poor or rich, healthy or suffering, in the vigor of youth or old and feeble. Even a man so poor that he is maintained by charity and goes begging from door to door, as also a man with a wife and children, is obligated to set aside fixed times to study Torah by day and by night, as it says (Yehoshua 1:8), “You shall meditate upon it day and night.” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:8)

 

            One is not just obligated to study, but to set a fixed time for study. Why is this important? Because when a person is kove’a ittim la-Torah, he has indicated that Torah has a permanent place in his life. It is not one of those things which you do only if you have time. A person who enjoys playing basketball will play if he has time, but won’t if he doesn’t have time. On the other hand, there are certain things that you do regularly because you understand that these are part of your very being. The question is: How is Torah going to fit into a person’s life experience? Will it be like reading a fine novel, or will it be part of one’s regular daily schedule? Will it be part of the very essence of his being?

 

            Kavata ittim la-Torah” thus suggests keviut not only in terms of “making the time for it,” but also in terms of what remains with you from your learning. What are you trying to accomplish when you learn? Is it enough to have gone through the motions, like going for a swim or a walk? The baraita is talking about keva in the sense of making it part of you. If you forget— you forget; you are considered an anuss (coerced). But, ideally, you strive to build up an otzar, a treasury of Torah, and to have it remain with you forever.

 

THE LAYMAN’S OBLIGATION

Let us return to the baraita in Avot de-Rabbi Natan:

 

Aseh toratekha keva”—how so? This teaches that if a person heard something from a sage in the beit ha-midrash, he should not regard it as transient but rather as permanent.

 

            There are several terms employed in this baraita which deserve further attention: “If a person heard something from a sage in the beit ha-midrash. . .” The gemara (Shabbat 31a) which discusses the six questions one is asked by the heavenly tribunal, three of which deal with talmud Torah, uses the same phrase: “Besha’a she-makhnisin adam la-din, At the time a person is brought to judgment.” The gemara and the baraita are referring to the same adam, the same person. The adam referred to here is not the professional lamdan (scholar), not the kollel student, not the yeshiva head, but adam—a plain Jew, an ordinary layman. What is striking is that this kind of demand is made of a regular person— he should strive to make his Torah keva.

 

            In certain respects, this an extraordinary demand, because one might have thought, “You can ask an ordinary person to engage in talmud Torah or to be in touch with Torah; but you cannot ask the average person to internalize his learning into something which is permanent.” In other areas, we assume that there is a great difference between professional scholars and those who have a dilettantish interest, and maybe even a love, for a certain field—we don’t expect of the latter to try to build up a permanent repertoire of knowledge. A professional scholar will read books, take notes, and compare the different works he has studied; a music expert may remember symphonies and conductors, and compare them, examining their respective styles and interpretations. But an ordinary person just wants to enjoy himself when he goes to a concert.

 

            However, regarding talmud Torah, the demand on the average person really is to make it a permanent part of himself. He cannot simply attend a shiur (class) and think, “Fine, I’ll hear the shiur—it will be a nice experience, he’s a good speaker. I’ll enjoy it. I’ll be enlightened. And I’ll go home.” You cannot treat it in the same manner as if you were going to the theater.

 

PLUMBING THE DEPTHS

This radical demand to make Torah keva, which one would not expect of a layman in other areas, represents a different kind of commitment. Of course, it reflects the tremendous importance we assign to Torah within our perception of the ordinary person’s spiritual life. This is heightened by the concluding questions in the catalogue of the gemara in Shabbat. One might have thought that even if a layman is required to learn Torah, it is enough for him to engage in it in a shallow manner—let him learn bekiut, maybe some mishnayot, etc.; in-depth study is the realm of the ben-yeshiva or of the professional lamdan. Do we expect of someone who goes to a concert to read up on the literature? Of course not.

 

            But the gemara indicates otherwise. A person is asked by the heavenly tribunal not just whether he made time for learning, but what was the quality of that learning: “Pilpalta be-chokhma? Heivanta davar mi-tokh davar? Did you debate matters of wisdom? Did you infer one thing from another?” Or did you just run through the material, superficially skimming it? This is far from what is expected precisely because it is superficial. The three questions in the gemara are connected: to the extent that a person is not mefalpel be-chokhma and does not strive to be meivin davar mi-tokh davar, then he has not been kove’a ittim—his learning lacks keva. In order for it to be keva, it must have a certain depth. One has to be engaged both emotionally and intellectually.

 

            Consequently, in order to make your Torah keva, it has to be accompanied by a certain grappling and wrestling, trying to plumb the depths of what you are learning. Every day, the ordinary Jew—not just the rosh yeshiva—prays, “Avinu Av harachaman . . . ten be-libenu lehavin u-lehaskil, Our merciful Father . . . inspire our hearts to understand and to discern.” He does not just ask God to give him the desire and ability to learn Torah, but rather lehavin u-lehaskil—to penetrate its depths. Of course, not everyone realizes this in great scope; but these are his values. And ultimately a person is judged not so much by his attainments as by his efforts.

 

            I remember some years back talking to a person who was affiliated with a certain socio-religious movement here in Israel. He told me that in their communities, the ideal is that balebatim (laymen) should learn mishnayot. I said to him, “I can perhaps come to terms with the fact that balebatim end up learning mishnayot. Maybe that’s the level of the people there—they can’t get much beyond that. But should it be the limiting case of the ideal!? Is one striving for that?”

 

The Rambam talks about how to divide one’s learning:

 

The time allotted to study should be divided into three parts.

A third should be devoted to the Written Law; a third to the Oral Law [which basically means mishnayot]; and the last third should be spent in reflection, deducing conclusions from premises [the same terms we just saw: yavin ve-yaskil acharit davar me-reishito], developing implications of statements, comparing dicta, studying the hermeneutical principles by which the Torah is interpreted, until one knows the essence of these principles, and how to deduce what is permitted and what is forbidden from what one has learned from tradition. This is termed “gemara.” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11)

 

            Then the Rambam goes on to say (1:12) that this tripartite division applies only when a person starts learning. But when one has become more proficient, he should review the first two categories on set occasions, and devote himself almost solely to the final category:

 

[He] should devote all his days exclusively to the study of gemara according to his breadth of mind and maturity of intellect.

 

            Here “gemara” means not necessarily a particular text, but rather an approach to and perspective on learning. It means studying in depth, not just reviewing dicta. Of course, at some point a person must acquire basic knowledge. But in terms of your ideal, where do you want to get to? Do you want to be left with just raw knowledge? That is not a keviut of Torah, that is not an internalization of Torah, and that is not a striving for the “veha’arev na” that we pray for each morning—a sense of love and pleasure in Torah. The fullness and the richness of talmud Torah is the “pilpalta bi-chochma,” the “heivanta davar mi-tokh davar.” If one strives to master the complexity, the depth, the range of Torah, then he attains keva in its fullest sense—not just by skimming the surface, but by plumbing the depths.

 

MOTIVATION TO STUDY

I know many are troubled by the question of how to develop the requisite passion and yearning for Torah. People would like to find some formula which would enable one to attain this automatically. I can’t speak of any formula, but I think there are certain directions which can be mentioned.

 

            Perhaps it is most important to stress that this is not a phenomenon we can regard in isolation. The extent to which a person is committed to Torah is very much a function of his commitment to God, and therefore it is related to the place of avodat Hashem and yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven) within his life generally. There may be some people who simply have a fancy, as it were, for Torah. But for most people, if the depth of yirat Shamayim is lacking, then it is unlikely that, of all the things to which they are exposed, specifically the Talmudic passage of “an ox which gores” is going to interest them most. There is a circular relation between yirat Shamayim and cleaving to Torah: the more you have the one, the more you have the other. One needs to develop a certain dialectic dynamic between these two. Inasmuch as a person is involved with Torah because he sees it as divine, as Torat Hashem, then the extent to which he relates to God is also going to have a great impact on how he relates to Torah.

 

            Love of Torah is also not to be regarded in isolation in the social sense. The baraita (Avot 6:5) says that one of the ways in which Torah is acquired is through dibbuk chaverim (joining with friends). Apart from its value in sheer intellectual terms—finding people with whom you can talk—dibbuk chaverim is also valuable in the sense of being part of a community of Torah, which will reinforce your values.

 

            I think there is also something to be said not only for dibbuk chaverim in a social sense but in a historical sense as well. A person should deepen his sense of belonging to a community of Torah spanning all generations. Although one cannot have direct contact with earlier generations, I think there is importance in getting to know this community. Among other things, this entails becoming familiar with Gedolei Yisrael.

 

            A person should also make some effort to relate to this problem directly, by studying the books and statements of Chazal which speak of the value of Torah. Not all of these are equally effective for everyone, but surely in some way one should try to encounter them. Some people may find that the Vilna Gaon speaks to them, others may read Rav Kook, and others the Ramban. Some may find that mussar study in the classical sense speaks to them, and that is certainly valid.

 

            It would be difficult for me to say that one thing will be effective for everyone, and that one should adopt only one approach to tackling the problem. It is a complex issue, but I think a person surely needs to recognize that we must address ourselves to it. Maybe at one time people lived in a world where all of this occurred through osmosis. However, most of us do not live in a world which breathes Torah all the time. That being the case, a person has to work on this in a way that at one time one didn’t need to (and perhaps in certain communities today, one doesn’t need to).

 

A MATTER OF VALUES

In summation, when we speak of Torah as a central value, we are dealing with both a quantitative and a qualitative question. Quantitatively, how much time and effort does a person devote to it? This question applies both in terms of how many years he devotes to it on a full-time basis, and in terms of how much time he devotes to it daily or weekly once he has started working. Although we believe that “Echad ha-marbeh ve-echad ha-mamit, Whether one does much or little, what truly matters is that he should direct his heart to Heaven” (Menachot 110a)—this does not mean that it is immaterial whether you are marbeh or mam’it. To the contrary, it is very material, both as a reflection of what your values are, and as something which subsequently molds and shapes those values.

 

            Moving to the qualitative level, a person is asked to make the Torah central to his life, to see that it has a keviut, a permanence, and is not just somewhere on the periphery. It should have a keviut within his own life, and also a keviut within his society, within his historical situation, analogous to Ezra. In practical terms, the element of keva means that, minimally, one has certain designated time frames for study, such that his Torah is not simply adventitious, but rather fundamental and inherent to his schedule. Furthermore, keviut means making Torah into one’s framework and planning everything else around that, rather than planning everything else and sticking in a bit of Torah in the remaining space.

 

            This is, of course, a large demand, and what is significant and striking about it is that this demand is made of each and every Jew. One cannot allow his social setting to determine for him whether or not Torah has a place in his life. It must be clear that, wherever he ends up, Torah is a central value, a framework for his life, something which is inherent in his very being. Like Ezra, he must influence his community—be it a social, economic, professional or academic community—in order to make Torah kavua there as well.

 

            For a ben-Torah, for a yeshiva student, there is an additional level. The baraita above speaks of “a person (adam) who hears something from a sage (chakham) in the beit ha-midrash.” This distinguishes between “a person” and “a sage.” Of course, a benyeshiva should strive ultimately to be not just the adam who listens to the chakham, but to be the chakham himself.

 

(Based on a transcript by Shira and Avi Shmidman.

This sicha was originally delivered to first-year students at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Winter 5747 [1986-7].  It has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)    

 

The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.  It can be ordered from here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/ralbooks.htm.