Just this evening while driving my car, there was a commercial playing on the radio chanting the words: “למה להכין אם אפשר להזמין?” – “Why make it yourself if it can be ordered?” This short slogan aptly captures modern day society’s attitude to life in general. If something can be achieved with minimum effort, time and investment, then that is the way to go about it. (Gives us more free time to chill).
All the more so, we seldom concern ourselves regarding the efforts that one puts in to achieving something in relation to the result attained. We always like to examine the result and not the path taken to achieve it. As a parent, I always try and commend my children for the effort they make, however in the “real” world, outside the loving environment of the family, it is results that are required. When applying for college, university or a prestigious job opportunity, the final grades are what are important. Nobody is going to ask you how long you spent studying for your ACT exam or how much effort you put into graduating high school – it’s all about making the grade.
Yet Rashi at the beginning of Parshat Bechukotai reveals to us that there is something in life where the effort is more important than the result.
אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם.
“If you follow My chukim and observe My mitzvot and perform them.”
Rashi:” “If you follow My chukim”: I might think that this refers to the fulfillment of the mitzvot. However, when the pasuk says, “and observe My mitzvot,” the fulfillment of the mitzvot is already stated. So what is the meaning of “If you follow My chukim”? It means that you must toil in the study of Torah.”
This pasuk is the introduction and condition to merit the abundant rewards listed thereafter. Rashi explains that in order to receive these rewards it isn’t enough just to do mitzvoth or simply learn Torah; there is a necessity to “toil in the study of Torah”. To be clear, this is not a reference to the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, since that is one of the 613 mitzvot already covered by the phrase “observe My mitzvot and perform them”. The phrase “If you follow My chukim” is an additional prerequisite to the fulfillment of all mitzvoth, requiring one to toil in Torah.
This point however demands clarification. Apparently the purpose of learning Torah is to gain the knowledge and become accomplished in Torah. If so, why is it the toil in Torah that is required? Rashi very carefully emphasizes that it is not the knowledge of Torah but rather the strenuous effort invested in learning Torah that is the key issue.
In addition, Rashi repeats this idea on the pasuk later on regarding the curses when one does not follow Torah U’Mitzvot:
וְאִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ לִי וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוֹת הָאֵלֶּה.””
But if you do not listen to Me and do not perform all these commandments.”“
Rashi: “But if you do not listen to Me: to toil in the study of Torah … I might think that this refers to fulfilling the commandments. When the pasuk says, “and you do not perform all these mitzvot” the fulfillment of mitzvot is already stated. So what is the meaning of “if you do not listen to Me”? It means – to toil in the study of Torah.”
Just as the blessings are dependent on toiling in limud Torah, conversely, the curses are the result – not necessarily of actively transgressing Torah, rather they are the result of a lack of toiling in Torah study! And once again, the issue at hand is not the knowledge or expertise of Torah, rather the sole issue of “amal Torah” – toiling in Torah.
What is the meaning of the focus on the strenuous effort in limud Torah? Why isn’t Talmud Torah evaluated by the acquired knowledge and proficiency in Torah?
Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that the bond one develops with something is relative to the effort one puts into it. He brings the example of a person who plants a young tree, cultivates and nurtures it until it is fully grown. As a result of all the effort and hard work put into the tree, the person develops a love and closeness that results with a feeling of oneness with the tree. This is a repeated theme in the writings of Rav Dessler where he explains that true love and bonding is the result of giving and investing of oneself.
How much more so, says Rav Dessler, is this true regarding our relationship with Torah? In order to deeply bind and join ourselves to Torah it requires a full hearted strenuous effort of Talmud Torah.
Rav Kook develops this idea further.
The Gemara in Berachot says
“What does it mean when it says, ‘The churning of milk brings forth butter….‘ (Mishlei 30:33)? In which individual will you find the butter of Torah? In the one who spits out the milk he sucked at his mother’s breast for Torah.”
Rav Kook explains this apparently unclear Gemara as relating precisely to our discussion. He says that most educators and pedagogues are constantly making an effort to make studying easier for their students, and so believe that they are bringing blessing to them. However, this is misleading, as the value of education is not to be measured by quantity, rather by its quality, the depth of understanding and the ability to enlist the knowledge when necessary. This is true for all knowledge and therefore strenuous effort is a prerequisite for true education. However, explains Rav Kook, this is all the more pertinent when addressing Talmud Torah. The purpose of Talmud to Torah is not to accumulate data and information, rather to internalize the moral, just and ethical values of Torah into ones being. Toiling in Torah is what elevates not only a person’s intellect, but permeates their whole being and integrates the truths of Torah into all the elements of their existence. Talmud Torah without “amal” – toiling, remains detached and foreign to the whole self of the one who studies it.
Therefore Chazal said that the “butter” of Torah – the choicest most qualitative Torah – can only be found in one that gives all of oneself to Talmud Torah, thereby allowing the Torah to shine through completely. One who is accustomed to “amal torah” will spit out the Torah which is presented to be learned easily, just like the adult will refuse to drink mother’s milk despite the easiness there is in digesting it. Knowledge gained effortlessly, remains superficial and detached.
In the Midrasha we take pride in the variety of subjects and classes made available for students. Looking at the curriculum, one could fill one’s day from morning to night with shiurim on almost all the topics in Torah and I often hear students bemoaning the situation in boy’s Yeshivot where almost the whole day is devoted exclusively to learning Gemara. We should remember though, that at the helm of those yeshivot were and are Gedolei Yisrael that fully understood the critical importance of “amal Torah” and it’s predominance in a true Torah education.
Today the urgency to try and ease the burden of students can be found everywhere, including in the Beit Midrash. Almost all classical texts have been reprinted with vowels, punctuation, summaries and the like. Looking up a Mishnah Berura or a Rashi on Chumash has become a simple task thanks to all the modern translations. Not to mention the availability of Gemara thanks to the Artscroll edition. But does this all not come at a price? I remember being in Yeshiva where it was common to use the phrase לשבור את הראש”” – “to break your head” over a page of gemara or a Rashi or a Tosfot , yet today as a Torah educator I often feel I have to be cautious and as helpful as possible to ease the burden of my students. Even the idea of trying to learn Torah in Hebrew has become for many too much of an effort, obviously an anomaly that has a long term negative effect on Torah learning.
“Amal Torah” is not a secondary aspect of Talmud Torah, it is the essence of Talmud Torah and it is vital to building and maintaining our bond and affection to Hashem and his Torah.
Let’s bring the hard work back!