By Yochanan Gordon
Having just concluded the Festival of Freedom, it would be apropos to retell a story I read over Pesach. Reb Shlomo Yosef Zevin, z’l, coauthor of the Encyclopedia Talmudis and the Moadim B’Halacha, among other sefarim, received rabbinic ordination from the Gaon of Rogatchov, zt’l. Reb Zevin recounts in his Sefer Sippurei Chassidim that one Pesach, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was overcome with a sense of pride and fulfillment at the conclusion of his Seder, having meditated upon all the kavanos of the Seder night and the recounting of the sippur yetzias Mitzrayim. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed to him that there was a Jew in town, Chaim Trigger, whose Seder had far surpassed his own. Having heard this, the Berditchever was pervaded with a sense of jealousy.
Immediately, Reb Levi Yitzchak summoned his closest followers to see if anyone recognized this Jew. One of them heard the name but was pretty sure that he was not from the more pious people in town, to put it plainly. At the tzaddik’s beckoning, they were sent to scour the town of Berditchev and bring Chaim Trigger to him to reveal his secret. Searching door to door, the Chassidim finally found the right home. The man’s wife opened the door and pleaded with the scavengers that while her husband is the Chaim Trigger that they had asked for, he is a drunk and is the furthest thing from a pious Jew. The Chassidim persisted and they escorted the man to the home of their Rebbe, the Berditchever.
As they sat together, the Berditchever asked, “My dear Reb Chaim, did you recite the portion of Maggid from the Haggadah on Shabbos HaGadol?” “Yes,” he replied. The Berditchever pried further, “Did you search for the chametz this year?” To that too, he replied in the affirmative. Finally, the Berditchever asked, “Did you make a Seder this evening?” Reb Chaim replied, “I’ll be honest with you. I drank this morning eight days’ worth of wine as a result of which I became extremely tired and fell asleep. With nightfall, my wife began attempting to wake me, asking why we weren’t conducting a Seder like all the rest of the Jews in Berditchev. So I replied, ‘What do you want from me? You know I am an ignoramus, as was my father. All I know is that our forefathers were exiled by their oppressors, and we have a G‑d that liberated us then. Today, we are again exiled and very soon G‑d again will redeem us.’ Following this incident, I saw that the table was set with matzos, wine, and eggs. I ate the matzos with the eggs and I drank the wine and out of utter exhaustion I was driven back to sleep once again.” The tzaddik listened to his words and commanded the Chassidim to return him to his house. After he departed, the Rebbe said, “His words were extremely cherished in Heaven because he said them genuinely without any agenda, with a complete heart.”
It seems like a pretty simple story, but it is profoundly deep. The sentiments expressed by this simple Jew touch upon something that we in our generation ought to learn from. But in order to bring home the message, a lesson from the saintly Toldos Yaakov Yosef is in order. The Gemara states that this world is likened to a wedding. At a wedding we are met with sights of an extravagant wedding hall, aromas of culinary opulence, and sounds of an immaculately trained orchestra. Reb Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye notes that we get overly consumed with the peripheral aspects of the event when the most essential element is the recital of, “Behold you are betrothed to me with this ring according to the tradition of Moshe and Israel” while the groom places the ring ceremoniously on the finger of his bride.
Nesivos Shalom explains on the verse by the giving of the Torah, “They saw the sounds and the lightning, the nation saw and was moved and they stood from afar,” that the glitz and glitter that they took notice of at the giving of the Torah was indicative of how distant they were from the essence of that awesome event. If we follow the famous interpretation that the word am, or nation, written on its own refers to the mixed multitude, it becomes ever more comprehensible how a people could lose sight of the heart of such an important, historic gathering as the giving of the Torah.
This world is like a wedding where the objective of it all is to sanctify G‑d’s name in all we do. Often, we become sidetracked by the petty details in life when we are here to accomplish one sacred act of becoming bound to G‑d and realizing Him in every aspect of our lives.
In the blessing we recite before learning Torah, we mention the Giver of the Torah. The blessing notes the Giver of the Torah in the present sense as if to intimate that the Torah is given anew every moment. Torah presents the ultimate paradox in that it gives life and at the same time could be the cause of death. Chazal say, “Im zachah bah, na’aseh sam chayim, v’im lo zachah bah, na’aseh sam maves.” The late Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the word zachah, in addition to meaning merit, also means to purify. If someone has refined himself through Torah then it is the elixir of life, whereas if someone learns Torah for self-gratification it causes the opposite of life.
We tend to overlook the importance of learning for a higher purpose, based on the words of Chazal, “A person should always learn shelo lishmah for through the process of learning in that manner one will enter the realm of lishmah.” The variable that exists, however, is the precise meaning of the terms lishmah and shelo lishmah. The Baal Hatanya writes explicitly in chapter 39 of Tanya, “However, when one engages in Divine service explicitly not lishmah, for the purpose of self-glorification, for example to become a Torah scholar and the like, then this motive, which is derived from kelipas nogah, clothes itself in his Torah study and the Torah studied for this motive is in a state of exile within the kelipah, but only temporarily until he repents, for repentance brings healing to the world.” This, he continues, is why Chazal encouraged learning even for ulterior motives since everyone will at one point do teshuvah, either in this incarnation or another one, at which point the Torah will be elevated.
In Chapter 40, the Alter Rebbe continues on this point and says that Torah that is learned shelo lishmah is not elevated above until the one who studied it repents. At that point, commensurate with the level of kavanah, the Torah will be elevated to the world of Yetzirah. However, he continues, “Torah learned for the sake of becoming a talmid chacham or the like will never be elevated above, but rather it will remain in the abode of kelipot.” This, the Baal Hatanya says, was the intention of Shlomo Hamelech when he wrote in Koheles, “What benefit is there in one’s toil beneath the sun.” Torah study for the sake of becoming a Torah scholar is categorized as Torah that is learned beneath the sun and yields no benefit to the one who learned in that manner. This too was referred to in Chazal when they wrote, “Fortunate is he who comes here (to heaven) with his study in his hand,” unlike those whose Torah remained below as a result of their initial agenda in learning it.
If you think about the structure of the current draft bill in Israel, where a narrow number of excelling students would be granted exemptions from national service, this may incentivize some students to learn with greater expeditiousness in order to be granted that immunity from serving the country. I would say that too would be an example of learning intentionally for the wrong purposes. Torah is supposed to afford us a relationship with the Al‑mighty. The Baal HaTanya was wont to say, “I am not interested in your Gan Eden Ha’elyon or Gan Eden Hatachton. I don’t want your Olam Haba; all I want is You, Aibershter.” In the philosophy of the Baal HaTanya, one who learns because he enjoys learning is the epitome of shelo lishmah. Chazal say that G‑d hid the Ohr Haganuz in the Torah and our motivation as Jews, to learn Torah, should be our will to come face-to-face (so to speak) with G‑d.
This relates as well to another saying of our sages, which at first glance is quite perplexing. Chazal write, “Do not enter a beis medrash alone since the angel of death stores his tools there.” Two things about this statement struck me as troubling. Firstly, in advising us how to overcome the evil inclination, Chazal say, “If you encounter this abominable being, drag him into the beis medrash, etc.” Stating that the very place that Chazal say could aid us in overcoming our urge for evil should be avoided for lone entrance since the angel of death keeps his tools there doesn’t sound right. Secondly, the Mishnah in Avos states, “Rebbi Chalafta, the son of Dosa, a man of the village of Chananya, says, ‘Ten people who sit engaged in Torah together the Shechinah rests among them, as it says, ‘Elokim stands in a G‑dly gathering.’” The Mishnah continues, “How do we know five? . . . How do we know three? . . . How do we know two? . . . How do we know that even one person who sits engaged in learning, the Shechinah rests among them? Since it says, ‘Anywhere My Name is mentioned I will come to you and bless you.’” If we see explicitly that G‑d is present when even one person is sitting and learning, how could Chazal tell us not to enter a beis medrash alone lest we fall prey to the angel of death whose tools are concealed in the study hall?
The question that needs to be addressed here is what it means to enter a study hall alone. Perhaps the answer to that is the type of Torah study that does not please G‑d—Torah that is learned for self-glorification, as clearly delineated in the Tanya based on numerous rabbinic sources. Torah that is learned alone is Torah that does not include the Giver of the Torah. Certainly one person who learns for the right purposes has nothing to worry about in a study hall since G‑d is sitting with him. However, someone who is learning solely to glorify himself or to make himself feel proud is not bringing pleasure to G‑d, and that is the category of Torah study that is “lo zachah” and is the source of death through Torah. It is conceivable that hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of people could be learning in unison and it could be as if they are all there alone. For without G‑d in our midst we are all alone.
I could certainly understand an argument about whether or not G‑d belongs in public schools and at the doorway to every classroom, which has been a long-winded debate. That we should encourage our children to learn for the sake of becoming talmidei chachamim, a sentiment which I have grown up with and continue to hear almost everywhere I turn, is beyond the pale of what Torah was meant to be when G‑d gave it to us at Mount Sinai.
As we stand here towards the outset of Sefirah, a period of time dedicated to a complete revamping of our character, as we prepare for Shavuot and our reacceptance of the Torah anew, it is time to realign our purpose in learning Torah altogether.
A rebbi of mine at Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel in Waterbury at one juncture in his life learned in Ner Yisrael of Baltimore. He said that his rebbi, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, would randomly ask some of the top students in yeshiva if they believed in G‑d. More times than not, he would elicit askance stares, as if the bachurim could not figure out his intentions for asking the question. But I think that Rav Weinberg was concerned with the points that have been made here; namely, that too many people are learning Torah out of a desire to be knowledgeable in Torah, and that is completely contrary to what G‑d intended when He gave us the Torah.
Reb Levi Yitzchak Schneerson wrote, in a letter to his son, the Rebbe, “Always be aware that every word that you learn in Torah is the word of the living G‑d spoken through the Tannaim and Amoraim.” He continued, “There are times that the Gemara will mention an opinion of one Tanna or Amora and the other one would reply that it is a forgery, or in the terminology of the Gemara, ‘badusa hi,’ both statements were uttered by G‑d through those scholars.”
As we forge ahead in preparation for Shavuot, let us internalize these messages—the story of the Berditchever about how a simple Jew’s sincere words made a much greater impact than all of his holy kavanos, as well as the Torah of the Toldos Yaakov Yosef about sanctifying G‑d’s name in all we do—and we will merit Kabbalas HaTorah with true and lasting love and joy. v
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