Internalizing Torah

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A beraita (an early text later incorporated into the Talmud) in Avot (6:6) opens, “Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are: …” And then the beraita truly lists virtues. Some are obviously linked to acquiring Torah, like the first few “study, listening, verbalizing, comprehension of the heart.” But then the list continues with middot (dimensions of soul traits) where the link is not as obvious, “awe/fear, humility, joy…” even things like “minimizing gaiety, slowness to anger” or “acceptance of suffering”. Clearly the sages’ conception of “acquiring Torah” only begins with studying and learning it.

As the story goes, a visitor went to see Rav Mandel of Kotzk, his first trip to a Chassidic rebbe. The Kotzker Rebbe asked him, “So what have you done all your life?” He answered, “I have gone through the entire Talmud three times.” “That truly is something,” the Rebbe replied, “but more important than how many times you have gone through the Talmud is the number of times the Talmud has gone through you!”

Which is no surprise after a short exposure to Mussar. After all, to paraphrase Rabbi Elya Lopian, the whole function of Mussar is to move something a mere cubit—from the intellect to the heart. From knowing to acquiring.

So how do we do this? A great place to start would be a beraita (an early text later incorporated into the Talmud) that lists the forty-eight qualities for acquiring Torah. Since I was given a limited word count, though, I will stick to just the first of what I might call the less-obviousmiddot on the list—yir’ah, a trait that covers the territory covered in English by “awe” and “fear.”

Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, two mentors earlier in the chain of tradition from the founder of the modern Mussar Movement, Rav Yisrael Salanter, writes the following about the relationship between yir’ah and Torah wisdom:

According to the measure of the “silo” of yir’ah that the person prepared for himself, it is by that same measure that the “grain” of Torah will be able to enter, guarded and fulfilled within him, according to what the silo can hold.

It is [like] a parent who divides grain for his children. He divides it out and gives each one a measure of grain to match what that child’s silo can hold …. For even if the father wishes and his hand is open to give him more, the son cannot receive more, since his silo is not big enough to hold more.

In the Talmud (Nedarim 81a), a number of possible diagnoses are given for why so many Torah scholars have children who do not follow in their footsteps. Most are variations on blaming the tendency sages have to think themselves superior to the masses. Ravina closes the discussion by suggesting it is “because they do not first utter a blessing over the Torah.” He then quotes an earlier statement by Rav, who says that the very fall of the First Temple stems from their not making the blessing before study!

What is so important about the blessing? It suggests the difference between trying to know Torah as an intellectual pursuit and approaching it with yir’ah, as something greater than me that inspires awe and fear and is worth acquiring. Stopping first, getting our intentions in order, linking the pursuit to the G-d who created us and gave us this Torah.

Yir’ah is the difference between knowing facts in the abstract and giving them the power to change our lives. It is the step from living for the moment, pursuing life’s more physical pleasures, to thinking about the future and striving for the more lasting happiness of a spiritual life.

Later in his life, the Mussar master Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (Berlin 1914—Jerusalem 2005) was surrounded by his students and asked them which one middah was most central to his teaching. One suggested modesty, another offered yir’ah. Rabbi Wolbe weeped, “I have no true students! If I had tried to teach you anything, it is hitlamdut!”

What is hitlamdut? It means to teach oneself, or to learn from oneself. It is the stance in which every situation is a learning experience, and every lesson learned is searched for personal application. Rabbi Wolbe illustrates his description of this middah with this example. Picture someone who studies the laws of tzara’at, the spirito-somatic illness described in the Torah that is often mistranslated “leprosy,” and its nega’im, its appearances on the skin, which come from sins such as egotism or lashon hara, malicious speech:

The student who learns [the Talmud] Tractate Nega’im in depth, and he toils at it and in the decisions of the Rambam in the Laws of Nega’im in great detail—when he reaches the conclusion of the laws in the Rambam he will find there ideas burning with flames of fire on the prohibition of lashon hara [malicious speech]—and it is as though the blinds were torn from his eyes and he is compelled to realize that the entire tractate in truth deals with … the laws of lashon hara! And this student will be devastated, how he, with all his development of the tractate, did not sense that he was busy with the severity of the law of lashon hara.

This student could have just spent an entire year studying some intricate but obscure and today inapplicable area of the Torah and only at the end realize that all of it was to motivate us to not speak badly of others. What a wasted opportunity!

That is hitlamdut! To study Torah with an eye to internalizing its lessons.

So, following are two practical steps to turn studying Torah into acquiring it:

First, take a moment to make the blessing. It need only be done daily, since in the ideal all of the day’s events could be mined for Torah lessons. Hitlamdut means taking lessons from everything. But take the moment to approach the text with yir’ah, an awareness of the import of what we are about to do.

Second, when actually sitting with a text, try to focus on a single take-away point. Some lesson from the text read that could be applied before the end of the day, before the inspiration passes. Hitlamdut—self-teaching/self-learning, not “simply” limud—study. Even if the thought is only put into that action just the one time, we allowed the Torah to make an impression on the soul—which is one of the rare things that is literally acquired for all eternity.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner likens Torah study to immersion in a mikvah, a ritual bath. Even if you do not retain all of the facts that were in discussion, the soul was purified and shaped by the experience. One can become the substance to which Torah gives form.

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