Deciphering the Code
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
The doors of the Yeshiva where I teach are constantly swinging open to welcome guests and visitors from all walks of Jewish life and all backgrounds of practice. Religious and secular alike are coming for an authentic Jewish experience through delving into the timeless teachings of Torah. Surprisingly the subjects covered are not just of practical Jewish law or relevant Jewish philosophy, but finer analysis within the complexities of the Jewish legal system that don’t have any obvious or immediate application. And yet these subjects not only engage the students intellectually but leave them with an uplifted feeling spiritually as well. The question does often come up though – “Why is it important for me to learn about things that will never be practical in my life?”
In the coming lines we will examine how specifically through the lens of chassidus Torah study is a deeply personal and transformative experience that brings a Jew to a fulfilled and meaningful life. This perspective helps us see that everything that occurs within our lives has a purpose, and that it is specifically through Torah study that we are able to appreciate this purpose. By reflecting on these ideas we are able to appreciate how every moment engrossed in the words of Torah is a direct and powerful connection between us personally and Hashem.
What does it have to do with Me?
As opposed to most bodies of knowledge which are studied only by a scholar or expert while the layman has to know only the practical application if at all, there is a mitzvah for every single Jew to study all parts Torah, even what may seem merely theoretical. A common challenge facing a student of Talmud is appreciating the relevance of the study to the student’s life. While certain segments of Torah study have a more direct impact, the exegesis of Talmud study with its fine details and uncommon scenarios often leave a student with a feeling of frustration wondering how it is pertinent to his life and why it is important for him to learn. Chassidic philosophy, beginning from the teachings of Tanya, helps develop a new appreciation for Torah in general – what it represents and what a person accomplishes through its study, helping to develop a deeper relationship between a Jew and Torah. In one discoursei (connected to Purim) there is a particularly illuminating explanation that revolutionizes our perspective, invigorating and exciting us to dedicate our time to learning with a feeling of personal connection.
Torah from this World in Gan Eden?
To introduce this idea the discourse presents two questions about statements made by our Sages regarding Torah study. The first is a teaching from Tractate Sanhedrin that only a person who enters into the World to Come with the accumulated Torah learned during his lifetime is able to properly appreciate the reward in that world. This sounds akin to saying that someone would benefit from going to an advanced mathematics class with completed preschool workbooks! Gan Eden is a world of pure spirituality enjoyed by the soul, divested of the body and all vestiges of this physical world. What value can there possibly be to laws about physical objects that are applicable only within the framework of this world – such as what blessing to make on various foods, or what to do when there is damage from one person’s property to another’s – in the World to Come?
A second question posed is regarding the vast disparity between different people’s obligation to study Torah. While a full time student is castigated for wasting even a moment although he spent the rest of the day learning, a businessman or someone who is otherwise occupied can suffice with only a short period of learning each morning and evening. This seems grossly imbalanced; if a small amount of time is sufficient for Torah study as evidenced from the businessman, how can it be considered a problem for someone who studied for many more hours than that to spend a few moments involved in some other pursuit?
Analogies and Analogues
Our new appreciation of Torah that will solve these two questions is based on the referenceii we find for Torah as an analogy. An analogy is necessary when there is a concept that is completely beyond the grasp of the learner in his current capacity. The analogy uses ideas or examples which the learner is familiar with and can comprehend, and through presenting them in a way which is similar or parallel to the lofty and inaccessible idea the analogy acts as a vehicle to make it accessible.
Seeing the Torah as an analogy helps us realize that the details of the Torah are relevant on an entirely different plane than their face value. An analogy that speaks about a prince and a pirate is actually referencing powers of good and evil that far surpass a reality where princes and pirates exist, however being that such lofty ideas are incomprehensible on their own they are communicated by means that are tangible and relatable. In the same way when the Torah discusses an ox goring a cow, or the color and shape of an Esrog, there is actually an idea being communicated which in its pristine state is purely spiritual and G-dly. The details as they are discussed in the Torah are an analogy through which these ideas become accessible to us.
Putting the Pieces Together
The soul itself, which is our life and our identity, is a piece of G-d, an entity completely beyond any worldly emotion or concept. It is sent here into this world on a mission which is as unique and special as it itself is, to be able to connect to its essence and fill existence – its physical body and the world that it interacts with – with this essential light. Like a scavenger hunt where a person is collecting unknown scraps which he will be able to mend together into a beautiful quilt that will display a complete picture, every moment of the soul’s life in the body is gathering scraps which reveal its essence. The tool that transforms all of that experience into these “scraps of quilt” is Torah study. And the appreciation of the finished product is the reward the soul enjoys in Gan Eden.
If a person is missing even a single experience that has not been properly transformed it leaves a gaping hole in the quilt. Therefore it is only someone who accomplished his necessary Torah study during his lifetime that can completely and properly appreciate his portion of the world to come. In the example of an analogy, while an analogy has the advantage that it can bring something that was completely beyond one’s grasp to become accessible, it also has a significant disadvantage. Since it is not the actual idea which was inaccessible it cannot be missing details if it is to be effective. Just like a prescription for eyeglasses; if it is missing even a single digit not only won’t it allow the person to see clearly it will distort their vision even more. Similarly for an analogy to display a higher idea it must be complete.
As unique as each of us is that’s how singular each of our souls is. No two souls are alike, no two missions are the same, so no two rewards (or “quilts”) in Gan Eden can be identical. Every soul has its mission and accomplishments during its lifetime, processed through its own Torah study, that it alone can appreciate and enjoy in the World to Come. No two requirements for Torah study are identical, because no two souls are identical. It is the circumstances of life that each soul finds itself in that indicate for it what its unique requirements are, and they will act as the analogy which unlocks its own unique reward.
The Means and the End
This appreciation drastically transforms our Torah study, for through it we are able to recognize that the details about which we are studying are analogies which are allowing us to achieve our truest potential and uncover our essence. It helps us recognize that studying Torah is not a means towards an end, but an end of its own. When we sit down to study its not to be able to understand something specific or know something that we didn’t know before, rather the study itself is the objective. We can therefore not ask what is the point of a specific subject, or what is the relevance of a certain conclusion. Sitting down to learn a subject in Torah is itself intimately important for it is an analogy and the analogue is us as we are a part of Hashem Himself.
Takeaway and Summary
The practical takeaway from all this is the importance of setting aside times for Torah study. When we reflect how Torah is the key that unlocks all the experiences of our lives so that they can act as parts of our own unique “quilt”, and when we remember that the details of the Torah we learn are analogies that allow us to access this deep essence, then our times for Torah study are no longer slots that we have to fit into our busy schedules, rather our schedules revolve around the time we have for learning. Even if that time is very limited, because our personal circumstances are such that our days are filled with various responsibilities, this is only an indication that our own analogy is more concise. With that little bit of time we are able to uplift and unlock all the other experiences in order to connect to the essence of our soul and accomplish our mission. But that bit of time must be utilized for Torah study without fail, and if circumstances change resulting in more available time that is an indication that the analogy has developed as well.
Following are two practical things to think about to increase enthusiasm for Torah study:
- Hashem is inside the details! Chassidus often teaches that the word Anochi, the first word of the Ten Commandments, is an acronym for “I have vested Myself inside of the words.” When we study Torah the details are a vehicle through which we are able to directly connect to Hashem Himself. This inspires us to be excited about our study even when we don’t recognize its relevance.
- Hashem is inside of me! Although Hashem gave us “Torah Achas” (one Torah) each Jew’s singularity is part of what makes up the Torah (which is why Yisroel is an acronym for “there are 600,000 letters in Torah” corresponding to the 600,000 Jews). When we study Torah we are not
just connecting to Hashem, but we are making that connection as it is unique to our own individual neshama, so that the Torah we are studying becomes our own and helps to reveal our own individuality and mission. For this reason the Rebbe encouraged everyone to find new ideas in their Torah study, because this emphasizes their own unique portion in the Torah, thereby taking each of our small “quilts” and connecting it to the much bigger “quilt” that is the entire body of the Jewish people.
i Chayov Inish Torah Ohr Megilas Esther pg. 98
ii Shmuel 1, 24:14, and see Makos 10b