Our Approach to Learning Torah
Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32 )
"When I call out the Name of HaShem, ascribe greatness to our God."(1)
The Rabbis learn out from this verse the obligation of Birchas HaTorah (2) (the blessing that we make before learning Torah).(3) The Gemara in Nedarim makes a startling point about the severity of being lax in this mitzvah: It tells us that after the destruction of the first Temple and the Exile that followed, the Scholars and Prophets did not know what was the cause of such a terrible punishment, until God himself told them that it was because "they left My Torah." (4) Rav explains that this does not mean that they were not learning Torah, rather that they did not make Birchas HaTorah before they would start learning.(5) The commentaries find a number of difficulties with this Gemara.(6) How can the Gemara attribute such severe punishments to the relatively minor sin of not saying Birchas HaTorah? Moreover, this Gemara seems to contradict the Gemara in Yoma, which states that the first Temple was destroyed because of murder, idol worship, and immorality.(7)
The Maharal answers these problems in his explanation of this Gemara.(8) He writes that it is impossible to understand the Gemara literally that they were not saying Birchas HaTorah, rather the Gemara means that they did not say the blessing with the proper intentions. He explains that when a person says Birchas HaTorah, he should focus on his great love and gratitude towards God for giving him the tremendous gift of the Torah. The great people of the generation did say the blessing and moreover, did not merely say it out of rote, however they did not focus sufficiently on their love of God when saying the blessing. He continues to explain how this subtle failing was the root cause of the terrible sins that led to the destruction of the Temple. If a person focuses sufficiently on God in the process of his learning then he merits to have tremendous siyata dishmaya (Heavenly Assistance) that makes it much easier for him to avoid sin and even if he does falter, it enables him to do teshuva (repent) without great difficulty. Rav Yitzchak Hutner writes that this is what the Rabbis mean when they say that 'the light of Torah returns a person to good'. However, if he does not connect to God through his learning then he loses that special Heavenly Assistance and if he falters he is far more likely to become trapped in a downward spiral of sin.(9)
Based on this explanation we can resolve the contradiction between the Gemaras in Nedarim and Yoma. The Temple was destroyed because of the terrible sins enumerated in Yoma. However the failure to say Birchas HaTorah with the proper attitude was the root cause that enabled the deterioration of the Jewish people to the point where they were sinning so greatly. Because they did not connect to God properly they lost Heavenly Assistance and consequently fell prey to the powerful temptations of the yetzer hara (the evil inclination). The Maharal offers a fascinating and somewhat surprising explanation of the reasons why a person may fail to show the proper love of Hashem in his Birchas HaTorah. He argues that it is impossible to love two entities at the same time, and consequently focusing on love of one thing will reduce the focus of the love for something else. Based on this, he writes that there are two possible 'loves' that one can express when saying Birchas HaTorah, love of God or love of the Torah, and that it is not possible to feel love for both at the same time! When a person says this blessing he is more likely to express his love for the Torah more than his love for Hashem! He warns that, "one must be very careful that he make the blessing on the Torah with all his heart and soul." (10)
This explanation of the Maharal may seem to contradict the approach of Rav Chaim Volovzhin in Nefesh HaChaim. He emphasized that when one learns Torah they should not be thinking lofty thoughts about God, rather they should delve as deeply as possible into the Torah that they are learning. He argued that this approach is the optimal way through which a person can become close to God. The Maharal's distinction between love of God and love of Torah seems to clash with the Nefesh HaChaim's emphasis on Torah as opposed to thoughts of God. However, on deeper analysis it seems that there is no disagreement; the Maharal did not say that a person should focus on his love of God during his learning. Rather before he begins to learn and says Birchas HaTorah, then he should be careful not to lose focus of God. The Nefesh HaChaim himself makes a very similar point with regard to one's attitude before learning. He writes, "whenever one prepared himself to learn, it is proper for him to spend, at least, a small amount of time, contemplating a pure fear of God with a pure heart." (11) He even argues that at times one should take a small break during his learning in order to rekindle his awareness of God.(12)
Thus, it seems that there is agreement amongst these two great Rabbis that before a person learns, he must be very careful not to lose sight of whose Torah he is learning. Whist with regard to the actual time of learning, there is no reason to say that the Maharal will not agree with the Nefesh HaChaim's approach that one should not be thinking lofty thoughts about God. Perhaps, this lesson, that one should not lose focus of God as he begins to learn, is also alluded to in the numerous Holy days that are approaching in the coming month. Soon after spending the month of Elul, Rosh HaShana, and Yom Kippur, on intense self-growth, aimed largely at reconnecting to God, we complete the cycle of the Torah and celebrate the beauty and wonder of Torah on Simchat Torah. The preparation leading up to Simchat Torah can help us adapt the correct focus in our learning - to increase our love and fear of God.
1. Parshas Haazinu, 32:3.
2. Brachos, 21a.
3. It is important to note that we only make this blessing once a day.
4. Yeremiyahu, 9:12.
5. Nedarim, 81a.
6. See Orach Chaim, Simun 47, with the commentaries of Bach and Taz, and Maharal, Introduction to Tiferes Yisroel.
8. Introduction to Tiferes Yisroel.
9. Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuos, Maaamer 7, quoted by Rav Yehoshua Hartman, Introduction to Tiferes Yisroel, Os 55.
10. Netiv HaTorah, Perek 7.
11. Nefesh HaChaim, Shaar 4, Perek 6.
12. Ibid., Perek 7.