Ask the Rabbi

  • Torah and Jewish Thought

Don’t Ask What The Torah Can Do For You!


Rabbi David Samson

18 Elul 5762
I have decided to spend next year studying Torah in a Yeshiva in Israel. After asking around, I am confused. Some people tell me to find a program with an intensive course of Talmud learning. Others say I should concentrate onunderstanding Jewish philosophy; and another friend is gung-ho on religious Zionism. What advice can you give to a beginner who is setting off on a course of Torah study?
A wise rabbi once told me that on Yom Kippur he asks G-d to forgive him for agreeing to give advice to all of the people who came to him with questions. There are certain personal matters that a rabbi cannot give black or white answers to. Rather each person must look into his own heart and decide matters for himself. Our Sages teach that a person should learn Torah in a place “that his heart is attracted to[1].” A person’s learning will flourish in a place where he feels he belongs. This understanding even has foundations in Jewish law. For instance, if someone wants to learn in yeshiva X and his parents want him to learn in yeshiva Y, the child does not have to heed his parents, because his learning will be more fruitful in the yeshiva he likes[2]. Since different people are attracted to different things and to different forms of intellectual endeavors, it is natural that there are different approaches to Torah. At my first day of study at Rabbi Kook’s Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, I was ill and missed the Rosh Yeshiva’s opening class in which he explained the yeshiva’s approach to Torah learning. When I felt better, I approached Rabbi Kook and told him that I had missed his opening remarks. Because of the vital importance of setting out on a correct path of Torah learning, he repeated the entire lecture to me one on one. He said that what made Mercaz HaRav different from other Yeshivas was its focus on the “Clal.” The clal is the comprehensive body and soul of the Jewish people, past, present and future. One’s emphasis should be on Clal Yisrael, and not on one’s own personal growth. Rabbi Kook told me that the reason for the First Temple’s destruction was that the students of Torah did not recite the blessing over the Torah at the beginning of their learning[3]. The blessing before learning or reading from the Torah is “Blessed is G-d, king of the universe, who has chosen us from amongst the nations, and has given us the Torah.” Rabbi Kook explained that one has to approach Torah from a national perspective, as seen from the national essence of the blessing itself “Who has chosen us from all of the nations.” The Torah must be seen as the national constitution of the Jewish people, and not merely as a list of individual commandments like keeping Shabbat and putting on tefillin [phylacteries]. The Torah was given to the nation, not just to individuals. This includes all of the nation, the righteous and the non-righteous alike; the holy rabbis and the workers of the land. The Torah includes not only laws for the individual businessman; it includes the laws of national economy. The Mishna includes not only the laws of the individual farmer, but the laws for a just national Israeli agriculture. The laws of purity do not merely apply to the individual Cohen [Jewish priest], they are meant as the foundation for a “NATION of priests and a holy NATION[4]” with the Temple as its center. The Torah includes not only the laws of kashrut and marriage, but also the laws of government, kingship, judicial procedure, army and war. Only if a person starts out with a proper national understanding of Torah will he realize the true goal of Torah and be able to put himself on its path. The true goal of Torah is to create a national vehicle for the manifestation of the Presence of G-d in the world. This means building the nation of Israel in the land of Israel. “For out of Zion will come Torah, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem[5].” With this understanding, a person connects himself to the clal. Especially today, with the renaissance of the Jewish nation in Israel, one has to approach Torah with the desire not only to build oneself but also to rebuild the entire congregation of Israel. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook taught that the true meaning of learning Torah for the sake of G-d is to learn not for oneself, but with the goal of adding more Torah to the Jewish nation. Any path of Torah learning that connects the student to this encompassing national vision of Torah is sure to bring great blessing to the individual and to the nation as a whole. --------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Avodah Zorah 19A. 2. Shulchan Orach, Yoreh Deah, 240:25 3. Baba Metzia 85B. 4. Exodus, 19:6. 5. Isaiah, 2:3.
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