Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 1 March 2008 / 24 Adar I 5768

Mark of Wisdom

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Mark in a Yeshiva

Dear Rabbi,
I am in a yeshiva trying to learn as much as I can to catch up on years of not having known much about Judaism. However, I’m finding it very difficult, and even frustrating, that I’m not making as much progress as I’d like to. This really upsets me sometimes to the point that I literally cry to G-d. Other guys don’t seem to take their learning too seriously in general, and they criticize me for getting upset about my own learning. But I feel like I try and try but often just don’t understand the complexity of the gemara, or if I do understand, I’ll forget it the next day. Please give me some guidance on how to approach this problem. Thanks in advance.
Dear Mark,

I understand exactly how you feel. Many people have been, and are in, a similar position. However, the first thing I want you to realize and keep in mind is that the very fact that you take your learning so seriously and emotionally is a very good thing if you channel it properly. By that I mean to say you’re really on the mark as far as your approach is concerned. You just have to channel your drive in a positive way, maintaining a state of joy that you have gotten to where you are, and then keep going forward. I’m sure if you look back at who, what and where you were not too long ago compared to who you are now, you’ll see you’ve made tremendous progress. It’s slow, arduous work, but you’ve accomplished a lot, and if you keep trying and persevere, you’ll accomplish a lot more.

It’s very important to remember that we don’t make ourselves smart, nor do we make ourselves understand. We see this from such verses as: “The wise of heart who I have filled with the spirit of wisdom” (Ex. 28:3) and “in the heart of the wise I have placed wisdom” (31:6). Wisdom and understanding, particularly in spiritual matters, are gifts from G-d to those who merit it. How does one merit it? By doing just what you describe about yourself: sincerely and humbly beseeching G-d.

In fact, you’re in good company. In I Kings 3, G-d addresses Solomon, offering to grant him whatever his heart desires. After recalling the great kindness G-d performed for his father David and himself, Solomon humbly admits his inadequacy to lead such a great nation and therefore requests: “Give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and bad”. This finds favor in G-d’s eyes who responds, "Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked for yourself long life; neither have you asked riches for yourself…but have asked for understanding to discern judgment…I have given you a wise and understanding heart; so that there was none like you before you, nor after you shall any arise like you. And I have also given you that which you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that there shall not be any among the kings like you all your days. And if you walk in My ways, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as your father David did, then I will also lengthen your days."

We see from this that Solomon merited wisdom and understanding only because his desire for it was even greater than for wealth and long life. This is what is meant by Rambam when he writes, “For the wise and those who seek wisdom, life without Torah learning is like death” (Hilchot Rotzeach 7).

Joshua offers another inspiring example. Ramban writes that the spies sent by Moses to investigate the Land were enumerated in decreasing importance and greatness (they were all righteous at that time). Joshua was listed fifth. Furthermore, the spies were all “leaders of fifty” which means that, of a people who numbered 600,000, there were 6000 “leaders of hundreds” and 600 “leaders of thousands” that were greater than them. If Joshua was in place 6605, how did he come to lead after Moses?

When Moses ascended Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, Rashi notes that Joshua pitched a tent at the bottom of the Mount preparing for his return. Why? In order that he could start learning Torah from Moses as soon as he came down. That means he left his family and the people for 40 days, all for the purpose of saving the time it would take for Moses to walk from the base of the Mount to the camp to start learning. Joshua may not have been the most intelligent or greatest of his peers, but what differentiated him from the others was his desire and effort to be. He thereby fashioned within himself a wise heart which G-d imbued with intelligence and understanding.

One of the great rabbis of pre-WWI Europe, Rabbi Izel “Charif” (meaning sharp) wanted the best Torah scholar for his daughter. He went to the yeshiva in Voloshzin where the best and brightest boys from throughout Europe studied. There, he posed a most difficult question announcing that the one who solved it would be given his daughter’s hand in marriage. The boys worked fervently around the clock, but to no avail. None were able to solve the problem. The rabbi left the yeshiva empty handed. After having set out on the road, he heard someone shouting and running after his carriage. Panting, the boy said, “Rabbi, the answer.” Rabbi Izel asked, “Do you have the answer?” “No, but I must know, Rabbi, what’s the answer?”

The rabbi’s face lit up! "You’re the one I choose for my daughter. Neither honor nor reward drove you after me, but the sheer love of Torah and a burning desire to understand it is what distinguishes you from the rest." Rabbi Izel then revealed the answer to his new son-in-law-to-be, Rabbi Yosef Shluffer.

You’re on the mark, Mark. Keep trying and keep crying. Fashion within yourself a heart of wisdom, and may G-d infuse it with the spirit of understanding.

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