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Shabbat Parashat Vayeira 5772

Ask the Rabbi: What Type of Torah Study Should One Focus On?

Rav Daniel Mann

Question:  What is the biblical source for learning Torah? Why does Hashem want me to study laws regarding damages, for instance, which do not seem related to spirituality? Trying to study just because Hashem commanded it, without understanding the reason, has never made me particularly attached to Hashem or inclined to continue learning.


Answer:  There are several biblical verses that refer to the need to study Torah. The Rambam (Talmud Torah 1:2) “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children” (Devarim 6:7) as the source for teaching students (non-biological children) and “you shall learn [the statutes] and guard them to fulfill them” (Devarim 5:1) as the source of the mitzva to study oneself. He counts these two elements (learning, teaching) as one mitzva (Sefer Hamitzot, Aseh 11). This seems to indicate that the mitzva is not just to treat Torah as something to know in order to apply for himself. Rather, it is imperative that as many members of our nation master and pass along Torah knowledge and values so that the Torah will eternally remain the guiding force of our nation-community’s life.

Many statements of Chazal (including Avot 6:1) laud, in the highest possible terms, one who studies Torah lishma (for its sake), in other words, for the right reasons. Yet, different classical sources put the stress on different elements of Torah study. While acknowledging the beauty of studying in order to teach, the mishna in Avot (4:5) seems to indicate that it is even a higher level to study in order to fulfill the mitzvot. This is not referring to merely reading the Torah as an instruction manual before performing a mitzva. Rather, one is to fill himself with a broad level of knowledge so that he knows how to deal with whatever might come up in the future regarding fulfillment of the Torah. The Bach (Orach Chayim 47) is one of the supporters of the minority view that the best intention is to study Torah in order to cling to Hashem. Rav Chayim of Volozhin popularized the widely accepted approach that Torah lishma is that which is learned for the sake of the Torah knowledge itself, after understanding the religious, not merely, intellectual value of that knowledge (see Nefesh Hachayim 4: 2, 3,18).

It is not necessarily that knowledge of Torah is more important than closeness to Hashem. Rather, there are mitzvot to love Hashem, fear Him, cling to Him, etc, and the performance of many mitzvot fosters these feelings. Torah study has at least a double or triple element to it. Knowledge of Hashem’s word connects one to Him and ennobles his behavior (see Yoma 86a). It enables one to fulfill the mitzvot properly. It insures the continuity of our religious community.

Hashem wants “us” to study all of the Torah, including the laws of damage. That being said, since only a handful of people are able to master the entire gamut of Torah, a person has to choose the style and subject matter that will bring him the greatest gain. Certain basic texts (including the Chumash) are a must for anyone who takes his Judaism seriously. There is also a basic amount of practical halacha that is required so that one does not constantly make mistakes. However, beyond that, one should experiment and get advice in finding the subject matters that are practically usable for him and/or inspire him. Some are enthralled by the intellectually rigorous from a legalistic perspective (including the laws of damages) while others are inspired by the more philosophical ideas. Trying to “force-feed” large amounts of areas that are not appealing to the learner are doomed for failure. (“A person learns only from a place that is heart desires” - Avoda Zara 19b).

Our suggestion to you is to find the subjects, teachers, books, etc. that further your own personal spiritual quest, while keeping your mind open to all genuine words of Torah. At the same time, realize that the same subjects that do not seem to produce the results you desire or need most at this point may do wonders for someone else or even may satisfy you in the future.

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