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What Does It Mean to Be a Ben-Torah? (Part 2 of 2)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
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The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





What Does It Mean to Be a Ben-Torah?

Part 2 of 2




            Thus far, we have focused on what is expected from a yeshiva student in the private domain.  But we must also speak of that which is demanded of the yeshiva and the community of yeshiva students at the level of Klal Yisrael.  This yeshiva is built - and even more so, the ideal world of Torah is built - on a profound sense of communal responsibility.  Certainly, a student's development as an individual is important, and would, in its own right, justify the existence of the yeshiva. Nevertheless, it is clear, perhaps always but particularly today, that such exclusive concentration is a luxury which neither this community nor the more general one can allow itself. 


            The sense of connection to and responsibility toward the community is one aspect of the sense of obligation which is extremely central to Halakha.  Here it expresses itself through attachment to a specific community, thereby negating the egoism at the root of the exclusive focus on one's personal needs.  We are not such radical universalists that we can embrace the entire world.  The communal duty which devolves on us is the responsibility to Klal Yisrael above all, a duty built on the feeling that a person belongs to Klal Yisrael, for there is his home; that anything he does which is totally divorced from Klal Yisrael cannot fulfill his obligation in this world; that to the extent which he acts apart from Klal Yisrael, he remains incomplete.  Rambam codified a law which underscores this point:


One who separates himself from the community, even if he does not commit a transgression but only stands aloof from the congregation of Israel, does not fulfill religious precepts together with his people, shows himself indifferent when they are in distress, does not observe their fasts, but goes his own way, as if he were one of the gentiles and did not belong to the Jewish people - such a person has no portion in the World-to-Come.  (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:11)


            The individual castigated by the Rambam is a person who does not violate any laws, who actually fulfills commandments, but not from within the community.  Our attachment must extend not only to the People of Israel in the Land of Israel presently.  It is an attachment to the present, past and future of the nation.  This requires an historical sense - to see things from a broad, trans-generational perspective sub specie aeternitatis.


            The attachment to the community must be expressed with sensitivity and deliberation.  It demands a calculation both of one's talents and of the extent to which one must enter the communal arena in order to function effectively in it, for there is a danger of getting swept up in the thundering flow of the group and being severed from one's own individual moorings.  Such calculations must be made with extreme care.  But to be released from the task - God forbid!  To discard the broader community on the assumption that we are so distant from one another that there is no possibility of contact, of empathy, of personal attachment - perish the thought!


            The person who will function within the community requires not only commitment, not only identification with Jewish history, and not only sensitivity to and understanding of the spirit of the community and its needs - he is in need of fortitude.  He must be a person of initiative, someone able to withstand pressure.  There is a prohibition in the Torah, "Do not fear any man" (Devarim 1:17), which, in its broad sense, refers to not refraining from speaking your mind in the presence of someone else, and that applies even to the student before his rebbe.  A person active in community affairs must muster the strength that will shield him from both real and perceived pressures and allow him to function le-shem Shamayim, in the light of the contemporary as well as eternal needs.  Anyone who educates in a manner which he knows does not suit the student body that he is teaching, but does so because he fears "What will X say?  What will Y say?"; any congregational rabbi who is reluctant to take an initiative only because of "What will people say?" - such individuals will ultimately have to answer for their restraint.




            I have enumerated general goals - what is expected, and hoped for, from the individual qua individual, and what is expected from him as a potential leader who will contribute towards the community's spiritual progress.  Once we begin to translate these general goals into specific demands, what is required first and foremost from the yeshiva bochur is an awareness of these very goals.  It is all too common for a student to come to yeshiva because he is "supposed to go," but lacking a clear sense of purpose, a total picture of what he is being asked to attain.  He knows, more or less, that a yeshiva is a place where one can sit next to a Gemara for several hours, preventing the religious lapses that might occur under other, more secular, conditions.  The first step towards knowledge is correcting this perception.  A student must know that before him lies a clear and unambiguous purpose which he must try to achieve to the best of his ability. 


            Aside from a conscious awareness of one's goals, one also requires a readiness to struggle and confront this challenge.  This struggle may assume various forms, but it is absolutely necessary that there be both a striving for advancement and a search for the appropriate methods.  The goal is to develop character and not become human flotsam and jetsam.  Flotsam and jetsam float - an individual learns to swim.  One who enters the yeshiva must know without any doubt that yeshiva is not a place for floaters.  It is for people who are prepared to build, to act, to perform - and to act on their own.  This, of course, demands character, a spiritual effort in all areas, both quantitatively and qualitatively. 


            Two types of diligence are required in this effort. First, one needs to be diligent in establishing clear and defined goals and sticking to them.  There should be no jumping around, whimsically abandoning the route undertaken only the day before, but rather perseverance in the overcoming of obstacles in one's path.  And, of course, there should be diligence in the ordinary sense, namely, that a person should value time as his most important possession; that he take advantage of it to the maximum, in the quality and quantity of hours spent on Torah, worship, and good deeds; that he adhere to regular schedules.  A ben-Torah should not be less diligent or active than anyone who holds a job. 


            There is also the issue of the quality of one's efforts.  From a certain perspective, one might imagine that a person who sits in front of an open Gemara, flipping through the pages, has, in some sense, fulfilled the commandment to learn.  However, everyone knows that there are times when one concentrates and times when one "dreams."  Taking advantage of time in the sense of maximum dedication to learning is also part of the effort - and one of the demands.




            Since the goals of a yeshiva bochur include not only the development of one's personality, but also one's contribution to the community at large, each and every individual is asked to set his sights beyond the walls of the beit midrash.  There is a constant requirement of service.  Of course, in a hesder yeshiva, this demand is expressed through army service, but God has many troops.  Each student is not only held to a standard of effort while in the yeshiva, but also in his preparation for the future:  specifically, the choice of profession.  In our circumstances, a person choosing a livelihood must make not only his own personal accounting, but also that of the broader community.  Such a reckoning requires an awareness of the community's present situation and a willingness and readiness to improve it. 


            This does not mean to say that every student in yeshiva must choose a life in either education or the rabbinate, or some other spiritual enterprise; however, each person must, at the very least, examine himself to see whether he is qualified for it.  And if indeed he is qualified - then he should do it!  During career planning, one must consider not only how to earn a better living, but also must determine for himself which professions are relatively simple and honest, which are simple but compromising, and which are honest but time-consuming.  One must also make his reckoning in light of the community's needs. Whoever understands the contemporary situation recognizes to what degree we find ourselves in an orphaned generation.  Our spiritual condition is in a constant state of emergency.  The readiness to remedy this, to contribute something - so that a person, upon leaving this world, can say, "I left it a better place than when I found it" - this willingness must be a basic characteristic of every student at yeshiva.


            This aspiration must reach a level of willingness even to leave Israel for the Diaspora for two or three years.  Only one who has been there knows the immense need: whole communities, numbering thousands of Jews, have not even one rabbi, or one religious school.  Similarly, there is much talk of the cities and development towns in Israel which are neglected.  But why talk only about neglected areas?  In the center of Jerusalem there are not enough teachers!  Anyone acquainted with the distance separating the rabbinic leadership and the broader community (and there are, of course, exceptions) must feel pained by it.  In the face of such realities, conventional career considerations are null and void.  When the house is burning, the first thing everyone must do is put out the fire.  We are in a situation where people are drowning right and left, and whoever has only personal career considerations at such a time should be deemed a pious fool, and perhaps not even pious.




            The requirement to acquire all this by the time one leaves yeshiva is, of course, quite difficult.  Nevertheless, there is, perhaps, one central point whose realization it is reasonable to hope for.  It is fair to hope that one completing his yeshiva studies will leave a spiritual person, one in whose heart beats an eternal spirit, one who thinks and weighs, builds and plans, in a manner different from that of the pragmatic technocrats who fill the world.  This is not a small thing.  When God calls upon Moshe to appoint Yehoshua in his stead, He defines to the new leader in one phrase:  "a man who has spirit in him" (Bamidbar 27:18).  The word "spirit" has multiple meanings: it includes courage and prophecy, wisdom and fear of God.  What, if not these, distinguishes the Messiah?  (See Yeshayahu 11.)  In this, everyone is obligated. 


            The Talmud (Berakhot 55b) states:  "Anyone who goes seven days without a dream is considered wicked."  Anyone capable of traveling on a path for one complete cycle - a full week - with everything in its proper place and according to its routine, without any striving, without a spirit pulsating and screaming to break out of the routine - such a person is wicked.  A good person strives, dreams, and thinks.  He dreams about achieving greatness, scope and depth, and clinging to God.  The particular dream each person must decide for himself.  Although the actualization is not always up to us, surely the individual in whom there is spirit can become a dreamer.


            Great expectations and great dreams consequently generate great demands - demands for breadth, demands for depth.  For a community that reaches the yeshiva largely without much knowledge in learning, and partly without even a clear outlook with respect to basic spiritual issues - this is indeed a great demand.  Within a relatively short span of time, to hope for so much is truly an awesome demand.


            The relative diversity of our yeshiva, both in terms of the student body and the goals of the yeshiva, make it even harder.  The ideology upon which this yeshiva is founded is one which, through integration and balance, strives for wholeness; and this balance makes it harder, as well.  On the one hand, maximum commitment to Torah is desired, but without the self-righteousness that devalues any other person or endeavor that has no connection to Torah.  We strive for fear of God and intense clinging to God, but at the same time we strive for the ability to understand and to love people who are distant from this kind of life.  We try to develop a dialectical approach which has, on the one hand, delicate sensitivity, caring and love for Klal Yisrael, and on the other, strength, insight, tenacity, and initiative - the willingness and ability to struggle for Torah values.  This surely increases the weight of the responsibility.  However, I did not promise, nor did I offer, an easy answer.  Each student must know that to be in yeshiva is a mission, a task, and a very difficult one.  It demands, requires, and obligates much.


            For a young student to succeed requires, in the final analysis, divine assistance as well.  However, one who strives to improve himself and to contribute, one who is prepared to reach a high level of training, who does not shirk intellectual challenge, who strives to develop a broad and profound outlook, who tries to refine his personality, who is prepared to struggle and make a consistent and persistent effort – such a person is assured that if he makes an opening the size of a needle's eye, Heaven will assist him to make the opening as broad as the Temple gates.



(This sicha was delivered at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1976.)

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