Friday, January 25, 2019

Parashat Yitro: Torah and Teshuvah

Torah and Teshuvah
Thoughts on Yitro 2019
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Having journeyed from Refidim, they [Bnei Yisrael] entered the wilderness of Sinai… (Shemot 19:2)

Rashi questioned this pasuk’s seemingly unnecessary mention of Am Yisrael’s travels from Refidim in the context of their arrival for ma’amad Har Sinai. He quoted from the Hakhamim, who suggested that the text parallels the character of Am Yisrael’s journey from Refidim to their arrival at Sinai: “Just as their arrival at Sinai was in a state of repentance (teshuvah), so too was their travel from Refidim.”[1]

Linking Torah to the process of teshuvah is unsurprising. The fifth berakhah of the Amidah couples our request of “returning to Your Torah” with “bringing us back through complete teshuvah before You.” Talmud Torah has likewise been paired with the highest levels of repentance, as some have suggested it as the primary component to fulfilling teshuvah of the greatest depth.[2] And Ramban pinpointed teshuvah as the subject of Moshe’s statement, “Surely, this instruction (ha-missvah) which I command you on this day is not too baffling for you…” (Devarim 30:11), which the Hakhamim had already explained as a reference to talmud Torah.[3]

Conceptually, however, talmud Torah and teshuvah appear to stand apart from one another. Whereas studying Torah represents our cognitive apprehension of God’s words, repentance entails our emotional return to His presence. How do these distinctive approaches cross paths?

The answer, I believe, is a reorientation of the very function of talmud Torah. Consider, for example, the Talmud’s conclusion to the debate about whether Torah study or halakhic practice is greater: “Study is greater, for it leads to practice.”[4] Maharal of Prague understood this seemingly contradictory statement as contrasting the missvot’s ability to affect only our physical actions to talmud Torah’s power to integrate godliness into our intellect and soul.[5] R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l similarly observed: “Talmud Torah is not just informative or illuminating; it is ennobling and purgative.”[6] It is no wonder, then, that as we attempt to adjust our approach of God through teshuvah, the greatest tool at our disposal is the transformational experience of talmud Torah.

It remains a challenge, however, to approach our study of Torah with this perspective. We tend to separate the intellectual endeavors of talmud Torah from their emotional counterparts.

During the early 19th Century, the school of Hasidut led by R. Simhah Bunim z”l  in Przysucha preached a service of God that coupled analytic study with passion. The story is told about a great scholar who had studied Torah for thirty years in Lithuania who once traveled to learn from R. Yisshak of Vorki z”l, a major figure in the Przysucha movement. Meeting the scholar for the first time, R. Yisshak asked him, “You are a scholar and you have learned many years, do you know what God is saying?” The man didn’t understand R. Yisshak’s intent and responded, “God says to lay tefillin, to pray and to learn Torah.” Following several similar encounters over the course of a few weeks, R. Yisshak finally explained what he meant by means of a derashah: “’Thus God says: If a man hides in secret places…’ (Yirmiyahu 23:24) – that is, that he sits cloistered for thirty years learning Torah, nevertheless – ‘I will not look at him,’ says God.”[7] R. Yisshak taught that a Torah scholar who does not know what God is saying is missing the point of Torah. Although he may believe that by shutting out the world he is dedicating himself to Torah, he is actually avoiding the critical “cry on the street.”

Michael Rosen reflected upon the philosophy of Przysucha in this context:
A Torah scholar who has no relationship with God, who does not know what God is saying, is missing the point of learning…Przysucha was a world that asked, “Why am I learning Torah?” “What does God want of me? “Can I hear what God is saying to me?”
He summarized the idea: “For Przysucha, Torah has to be something that changes and purifies the human being.”[8]

Divorcing knowledge from heart – or life is in fact reminiscent of Adam and Hava’s fatal mistake regarding the two trees of ess ha-da’at and ess ha-hayim. A well-known Kabbalistic tradition explains that by eating from the Tree of Knowledge they separated these entities from one another, “interrupting the stream of life which flows from sphere to sphere.”[9] It follows, then, that we too repeat the sin of Eden every time we turn the “living Torah” into mere “information.”[10]

The Mishnah in Avot (6:1) enumerated the positive effects of ideal Torah study:
R. Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things…He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of God,” “lover of men,” “delighter of God,” “delighter of men” … It prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, it distances him from sin, and draws him near merit.
Viewed through an accurate prism, the experience of talmud Torah stretches us beyond the realm of knowledge of God into the domain of shared emotions with Him.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 19:2 (s.v. va-yis’u), based on Mekhilta DeRibi Yishma’el.
[2] See R. Hayim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayim 4:31 and R. Avraham Y. HaKohen Kook’s Orot Hateshuvah 10:1.
[3] See Commentary of Ramban ad loc. (s.v. ve-ta’am), and R. Yaakov B. Zolty’s Mishnat Yaavess: Orah Hayim (Jerusalem, IS, 1996), no. 54.
[4] Kiddushin 40b.
[5] R. Yehudah Loew b. Bessalel, Netivot Olam, Netiv HaTorah 1.
[6] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Study” in Twentieth Century Jewish Religious Thought (Philadelphia, PA, 2009), pg. 934.
[7] Ohel Yisshak 126:295.
[8] The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim (Jerusalem, IS, 2008), pg. 83-5.
[9] See, e.g. Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 232.
[10] See Arthur Green, Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (Woodstock, VT, 2003), pg. 145.