Relevant to the recent flurry of articles following Mishpacha Magazine's recent article relating to the resurgence in interest in penimius HaTorah and chassidus, it is worthwhile to check out Rabbi Boruch Leff's article from his book, Are You Growing?, which relates to Rav Moshe Weinberger's recent shiurim also on these issues, "Hashem's Unbreakable Love for Every Jew - Part 1" and Part 2:
Hashem Awareness Even When Learning Torah
Generally, there is a perceived difference of opinion between chassidim and non-chassidim regarding how much emphasis should be placed on actually thinking about Hashem within the realm of Torah study. This essay’s purpose is to show that while such a debate indeed exists, the two sides have much more in common than is usually understood.
All those who study Torah in order to come closer to Hashem (which should include everyone) must make a real connection with Hashem within their learning. It is difficult to learn in this fashion. Most people simply open the sefer and begin to learn. Learning Torah in any fashion is a great mitzvah and we admire all those who do so, especially the yeshiva bochrim and Kollel students who learn most of the day. However, as difficult as it might be, we all should try to bring more Hashem awareness into our learning.
Perhaps you were surprised by the title: Even when learning Torah? Isn’t it obvious that when we learn Torah we are performing a mitzvah and are very much aware of Hashem? Let me tell you a story which will explain the title.
The famous Rav Shmelka of Nikolsburg was once learning in the beis medrash alongside his equally famous brother Rav Pinchas Horowitz, author of the seforim HaMakneh and Hafla’ah. Rav Pinchas noticed that every so often, the shammas attendant of Rav Shmelke would interrupt Rav Shmelke and whisper something into his ear. After a number of times of watching this, Rav Pinchas couldn’t contain his curiosity bordering on anger at the shammas for interrupting his brother’s learning.
Rav Pinchas finally asked his brother what the shammas was saying to him, “Why do you permit him to continuously interrupt your learning?! Tell him of the prohibition of bitul Torah—that he shouldn’t waste any of your time, especially when you are learning in the beis medrash!”
Rav Shmelke responded, “My brother, you misunderstand. I told my shammas to interrupt me. You see, when I learn Torah, there are times that I get so involved in what I’m learning and I enjoy it so much that I forget there’s a Ribbono Shel Olam! I told my shammas that every so often, even when I’m learning, he should whisper in my ear, ‘There is a Ribbono Shel Olam!’ This is what brings me back to the purpose of my learning Torah—to understand Hashem and His will better and to attach myself to Him!”
A poignant story. The story’s lesson is related to what the Kotzker Rebbe once said, “The Torah prohibits us from worshipping idols, avoda zara. . .even of the Torah itself!” This means that we can’t allow our Torah learning to take on a life of its own. We must always learn with a real and continuous awareness of why we are learning and for whom we are learning.
WHILE YOU’RE LEARNING YOU MUST LEARN
This does not mean that we must meditate upon Hashem while actually learning. Certainly, when we learn, we must concentrate and attempt to understand what Rashi and Tosafos and the Rashba are saying. But, as Rav Shlomo Brevda, shlita, once told me, in order to maximize the hashpaah, the powerful spiritual influence that Torah study can have upon our souls and our midos, we must fulfill the requirements of the prime student of the leader of non-chassidim, the Vilna Gaon. His prime student, Rav Chaim Volozhin, writes in the Nefesh HaChaim (Shaar 4:6):
“This is the proper true path that Hashem has chosen. Whenever a person prepares himself to learn Torah, he should sit down before he learns, at least for a short time, with a pure heartfelt fear of Hashem, and confess his sins from the depths of his heart, so that his Torah will be more pure and holy. He should then have in mind that he will attach himself to Hashem through learning His Torah, because by studying the word of Hashem, halacha, with all one’s strength, with this, one attaches himself to Hashem as much as possible. This is because He and His will (the Torah) are One.”
The Nefesh HaChaim (4:7) continues:
“Before learning Torah, a person should think about Hashem with purity of heart and fear of Him, and cleanse himself with thoughts of repentance, so that He can connect and attach himself to the will of G-d when he learns. He should also accept upon himself to observe and fulfill all that is written in the entire Torah and he should pray that Hashem will lead him to discover the truth of Torah.”
“This should be done even in the middle of learning. Permission is given to interrupt regular learning subjects, for a short time, before the passion of the fear of Hashem becomes extinguished from his heart, (to reignite) all that he accepted upon himself before he began learning. He should think again of the fear of Hashem. . .This is not bitul Torah, because it is necessary in order for the Torah to have a lasting impact.”
LEARNING LIKE RAV YISRAEL SALANTER
This approach to Torah study is vital in order to avoid the warning of the Kotzker Rebbe mentioned above. By actively and directly connecting our Talmud Torah to the Ribbono Shel Olam in a real sense, and not merely in a general, disconnected way, the learning becomes a vehicle for true dveikus with Hashem.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes similar thoughts in Alei Shur (Volume 2, page 106). He says that there are many ways to learn Torah—iyun, bekius, pilpul, in-depth analysis, general factual knowledge, to name a few. But there is also a ‘Yiras Shamayim’ way of learning. This path does not negate any of the others but accompanies them. Every sugya and subject in Shas has the fear of Hashem within it if we but pay attention to it. All of the decrees from the rabannan are derived from a fear of Hashem not to transgress His Torah.
A person can inject fear of Hashem into all that he learns, says Rav Wolbe. Frequently, the gemara says ‘Amar Mar—the (anonymous) Master said.’ The Midrash Tanchuma says that Mar refers to Hashem! Thus, instead of saying Mar, when learning the gemara, one should substitute the words Amar HaKadosh Baruch Hu! And then state the halacha the gemara mention
s. This is the path and method that Rav Yisrael Salanter utilized to directly connect what he was learning to Hashem and His ratzon. This is how we can discover yirah and mussar in whatever we learn.
Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh states that fulfilling the Nefesh HaChaim’s guide to Torah learning is a major component to the mitzvah of Shivisi Hashem L’Negdi Samid, I set Hashem before me always (Tehillim 16:8). Though the Rema begins the Shulchan Aruch by saying this avodah of Shivisi is among the maalos of tzadikim, the highest levels of the righteous, the Biur HaGra there says, ‘This concept includes all the levels of the righteous—vezehu kol maalos hatzadikim!’
Thus, we must work on trying to feel Hashem’s presence at all times, and as we’ve seen, this applies even when we are learning Torah.
THE GOAL OF ALL MITZVOS
What is the goal of life? Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (Volume 3) states that we must crystallize the answer to this question before we can progress in our service of Hashem. We think the answer to this question is very obvious—most people would say the goal of life is to involve ourselves in mitzvos, and to learn Torah in order to know Shas and poskim. But the Ramchal writes differently.
In Mesilas Yesharim, right in the beginning of the first perek, the Ramchal says the goal of life is ‘l’hisaneg al Hashem,’ to derive pleasure from being close to Hashem. We are to put all of our drives into coming close to Hashem, to the ultimate extent of being drawn like a magnet to Him. This doesn’t mean, says Bilvavi, that we are not supposed to learn as much Torah as we can at every possible moment, trying to know Shas and poskim. As Chazal say, the world only continues to exist through the merit of learning Torah. But we must realize that the purpose of all of our learning is to attach ourselves to Hashem.
There are those who say that since the Zohar says that HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Oraysa, V’Yisrael Chad Hu—Hashem, the Torah, and the Jewish people are one, then when we learn Torah, we are automatically attaching ourselves to Him, whether we intend to or not. If we are attached to the Torah, we are attached to Hashem.
But Bilvavi points out that one can’t consciously ignore dveikus B’Hashem even when learning Torah, because according to this thinking, then when we’re involved and attached to other Jews, or when we’re ‘attached’ to ourselves only, we’re also attached to Hashem. After all, the Zohar says Yisrael V’Hashem is also chad hu. Rather, even when learning Torah, we must make a conscious effort to be cognizant of the goal which Torah learning is supposed to produce—dveikus B’Hashem.
IDEAS FROM RAV SHIMSHON PINCUS
Rav Shimshon Pincus (Nefesh Shimshon-Torah V’Kinyaneha, page 218) says that if a person wants to be able to learn Torah with an awareness of Hashem, he should make sure to recite the tefila from Chazal that is designed to be said before we learn Torah. Brachos 28b says that Rav Nechunya ben Hakanah would recite a tefila before he entered the beis midrash to learn Torah. The tefila was comprised of a request that he become successful to discover the truth of Torah and avoid any obstacles that would stand in the way of this goal. He would also say a tefila after he left the beis midrash thanking Hashem for the merit to be able to learn Torah.
The Mishna Berura (110:37) brings the Rambam in the Peirush Mishnayos who says that reciting this tefila is an absolute obligation because the mishna did not tell us what Rav Nechunya did to simply tell us a story; rather, the mishna is telling us what we must do to emulate Rav Nechunya. Rav Pincus declares that whoever says this tefila is guaranteed to be successful in his learning.
Rav Pincus continues to say that when we learn we should envison HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself as our chavrusa, learning with us. The Nefesh Hachaim shows from many statements in Chazal that when we learn Torah, Hashem is mouthing the words along with us. He is literally with us—and we must be cognizant of this attachment with Him when we learn.
KISSING THE GEMARA
We all need rebbeim. We all need to search for and find great rebbeim. There are different kinds of rebbeim. Some rebbeim teach us the Gemara or the Chumash. Yet this does not suffice. We need rebbeim who can teach us something else, just as important.
Rav Yaakov of Ishbitz, son of the Mei HaShiloach and author of Beis Yaakov on Chumash, would give a shiur for a select group of students from 12AM until 4 AM every night of the week except Shabbos. Rav Moshe Weinberger, shlita, tells the story of one of the students who attended these amazing shiurim. Years later, the student described that he remembers how Rav Yaakov was very meticulous about time and every night at exactly 12AM—one could even set his watch— two of Rav Yaakov’s attendants would escort him into the room, one holding a candle and one holding the big gemara. Rav Yaakov would give the shiur with amazing pilpul and chiddushim. It felt like one was at Sinai. At exactly 4AM, the two shamashim came forward again, one with a new candle to lead him out into the street, and the other to hold the gemara.
This talmid reflected that he loved going to this shiur, but he now remembers very little of the insights from the shiurim. “I experienced tremendous suffering in my life and I have forgotten most of what I learned. But there is one thing I never forgot, one memory that stayed with me and encouraged me throughout my years and throughout my suffering. The memory of how Rav Yaakov lovingly kissed his gemara when the shiur was over is the fire which keeps me going.”
There’s the teaching of the gemara and there’s the kissing of the gemara. If we only have a rebbe who is able to teach us the gemara, we need to find one who can also teach us how to kiss the gemara.
When we kiss the gemara properly, we show that the learning is a vehicle to bring us closer to Hashem.
-Rabbi Boruch Leff
-Rabbi Boruch Leff