Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 16 June 2012 / 25 Sivan 5772

For Heaven's Sake

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Michael

Dear Rabbi,

Since the blessings were instituted over the performance of the mitzvot, and the mitzvah regarding Torah is to learn it, why doesn’t the blessing state, “Who commanded us to learn Torah”? Why does it rather say, “to be engaged in Torah”? Thanks in advance.

Dear Michael,

This is a very good question, and there are several possible answers.

For one, perhaps the wording of the blessing intends to convey the idea that, unlike other areas of study, Torah is not merely a purely intellectual exercise, but rather one is to be fully engaged – soul, mind and body – in the learning experience. To be engaged in Torah study in this context means to be enthralled and engrossed in it as opposed to just learning it for the information. An extension of this would mean to be engaged in actually practicing what one learns.

Another explanation for this wording is that “learning” a subject implies mastering it. However, in truth, Torah is not something that a person can wrap his mind around. At most, we can be engaged in trying to learn and comprehend it. But to fully understand it is beyond us. The language “to learn Torah”, implying that it can be mastered, would also suggest that once “completed” one could direct his attentions elsewhere, G-d forbid. The phrase “to be engaged in Torah”, however, imparts incentive to keep learning.

Another interesting explanation is based on the idea that we are rewarded for actual Torah study, even if we don’t ultimately understand what we’ve tried to learn. This is generally not the case with secular studies. For understandable reasons, if you don’t know the material, fail the test, or are unable to apply what you’ve learned, no matter how hard you tried, you just won’t make it. That’s not so with Torah. Of course, learning and understanding as much as possible is the goal, and one must make every effort to do so. But if after all the effort, one just doesn’t get it, G-d gives an “A” for effort. The explanation for this is based on what I wrote above. Namely, the Torah is truly vast, complex and beyond comprehension, so compared to what there is to know, that which we “learn” is next to nothing. So, in a sense there’s little difference between “understanding” and not understanding. So ultimately, it’s engaging in the sincere, heart-felt desire and effort to understand that counts.

One last explanation is that the wording “to be engaged” implies that our Torah study should be taken at least as seriously as the work or profession in which we are engaged. For example, before opening his doors for business a store owner would chose very carefully where to locate his store so that he would have access to the best merchandise and exposure to those who most appreciate it. He would think long and hard to design business strategies to ensure maximum gain and minimum loss. He would make sure his store is clean and well-organized, with the merchandise properly shelved, well-labeled, accessible and appealing.

So too we must endeavor that our Torah study be in places and among people conducive for learning. We must plan our time to maximize Torah study and minimize distractions from it. And every effort must be made to learn in an organized fashion so that our Torah learning is clear, precise, and presentable.

Of course, let us not forget the continuation of the blessing you cite, “HaArev Na” where we ask G-d to make our Torah learning sweet in our mouths and sweet for our descendents and that we all merit to learn Torah with elevated and uplifting intentions for the sake of Heaven.

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