Commentary

Torat Hashem Heftzo: Finding Wonder in Torah Study

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Kenneth Brander

We are all familiar with situations in which observant Jews who study Torah have not been fortunate to see their children follow in their footsteps. It would seem to be obvious that the children of people who study Torah are inspired to live a Torah-based life themselves. After all, their parents know how to explain it and make it accessible to them and can inculcate within them the love and knowledge of Torah. It might even be said that spiritual genetics should contribute to religious continuity. 

Why do young adults raised in homes steeped in Torah still sometimes leave formal observance? This question, which is raised so frequently nowadays, was already discussed in the Talmud, in Nedarim 81a. Naturally, the very fact that the rabbis discussed this issue indicates their profound and significant soul-searching in regard to the way they educated their children and that at times they did not always succeed, a situation with which we can identify today. According to our rabbis’ conversation in Nedarim, the lack of religious continuity among their children is meant to teach talmidei hakhamim not to be haughty regarding their engagement with the community, and not to think “that the Torah was given to them as an inheritance.” But Ravina suggests a different, surprising reason: “Because the Torah scholars did not recite the blessing before studying Torah.” This is a continuation of the words of Rav, who even attributes the destruction of the First Temple to this cause. We must therefore ask ourselves what is the significance of the blessings over the Torah, such that their neglect led to the lack of religious observance amongst the children of the Torah scholars and the destruction of our Temple. 

Maimonides, in the Laws of Berakhot, recounts the different types of blessings: blessings of enjoyment (birkot ha-nehenin), blessings over mitzvot, and blessings of thanksgiving and praise. He elaborates on all types of blessings, beginning with birkat ha-mazon up until the blessing over arba’at ha-minim on Sukkot. The only blessings absent from this list are the blessings over the Torah. These, Maimonides mentions only in the Laws of Tefillah, chapter 7:10:

One who rises early to read from the Torah before he recites the reading of the Shema – whether from the written Torah or from the oral Torah – washes his hands first and says three blessings and afterwards reads. And these are they: Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us about the words of Torah. May the Lord our God please make sweet the words of Your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of Your nation the entire House of Israel. And may we and our offspring and the offspring of Your nation be those who know Your name and those involved in Torah. Blessed are You, Lord, who teaches Torah to His nation Israel. Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who chose us from all the nations and gave us His Torah. Blessed are you Lord, giver of the Torah.

It is evident from here that the recitation of these blessings enables Torah study. If someone wants to eat an apple, one must recite “borei pri ha-etz”; and if one has now chosen to study Torah, he or she must first recite its blessings before doing so. But in the next Halakhah, Maimonides states that this blessing is to be recited every day, and that afterwards one must read a selection from the Biblical text or the words of the sages:

One is obligated to recite these three blessings every day. Afterwards, one should read a few words of Torah. The people adopted the custom of reading the Priestly Blessing. In certain places, they recite [the passage, (Numbers 28: 1-9)]: “Command the children of Israel…,” and there are places where they read both of them. Also, [it is proper] to read chapters or laws from the Mishnah and the Baraitot (ibid.:11).

However, the meaning of this duality is unclear: does the berakhah make Torah study possible? Or is the reading of Torah texts a response to the obligation of reciting a daily blessing on Torah study? In any case, why was this included in the Laws of Tefillah rather than in the Laws of Berakhot or the Laws of Torah Study

If we return to the Talmudic text (Berakhot 11b), we see that an even more basic question is the subject of controversy: Which type of Torah study requires a blessing? While Rav Huna states that we recite the blessing only over studying the Biblical text, Rabbi Eliezer adds Midrash and Rabbi Yohanan includes the Mishnah. Rava goes so far as to say that one should recite the blessing on Talmud study as well. What principles underlie this difference of opinion? It can be suggested that the argument is predicated upon what is considered Torah that requires a “matir” of a berakhah. Rav Huna sees the requirement for blessings over Torah to make it permissible to study God’s word as applying only to the Biblical text. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yohanan extend God’s word to include limited rabbinic text; they differ regarding the distance from the Torah that rabbinic texts lose their status as “God speak”. Does it continue with the Midrash, which directly interprets the Biblical text? Does it also include the halakhic rulings of the Mishnah? Rava, whose position is accepted as Halakhah, extends this holiness to the Talmud – the human conversation that interprets the text – and so this, too, requires the recitation of the Torah blessings. 

The discussion of which forms of Torah study require a blessing as well as the positioning of birkot ha-Torah in Maimonides’ Laws of Prayer are reflected in the specific terminology used in the three berakhot recited. The first blessing “…Blessed are You…who commanded us concerning words of Torah,” relates to the historical connection which was initiated at Mount Sinai, and from that moment on, each and every Jew has an insoluble link to the Torah. The passive and static language that Maimonides chooses for the formulation of the first berakhahal divrei Torah” –upon words of Torah, rather than the more dynamic formulation of “la’asok be-divrei Torah” – to engage in the words of Torah, highlights that this berakhah is reserved for the historical dimension of the Torah experience. 

The second blessing, which opens with the words “ha’arev na,” may the words of Torah be pleasant, and ends with “ha-melamed Torah le-amo Yisrael,” who teaches Torah to His people, Israel, adds an emphasis of engagement to the one who studies Torah. We have to carry on the powerful experience at Sinai through our profound engagement with Torah, channeling the “sounds and lightning” by way of the Beit Midrash, the house of study. The power of this engagement is why our sages state that there is no justification for the existence of the Beit Midrash without hiddush – without new and novel interpretation. 

Now we can understand Rava’s approach. It is truly through the discussions of the sages that we experience the most potent expression of holiness. Through the analysis and exploration we find what is most alive and eternal in Torah: the ability for us to kindle God’s light. 

The third berakhah connects these two points, describing the passive historical dimension,”asher bahar banu mi-kol ha-amim,” who has chosen us from amongst the nations, but at the same time “natan lanu et Torah-to,” who gave us His Torah. This is the active and dynamic aspect of limud which expresses our responsibility for continuity in the Torah. 

If so, the blessings over the Torah were not only intended to make study permissible, or to express thanks for the privilege of such engagement, but to provide context. The Torah comes with a compass that always points towards the learner, derived from the gravitational pull of our fidelity towards tradition, responsibility to the mesorah and at the same time the mandated desire to develop new insights. This compass shows us the way, from whence we came and to where we are going. 

Maimonides, in contrast with others who enumerated the Torah’s commandments, does not count the mitzvah to recite birkot ha-Torah as part of the 613 commandments in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (see Nahmanides notes to Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Positive Commandment 15 and the Megillat Esther op cit.). From his perspective, the recitation of these blessings is not a mitzvah that is separate from the commandment to study Torah. The context is not meaningful without the text itself, and the Biblical text cannot be actualized without its context. In this manner, it is possible that the two halakhot linked to birkot ha-Torah express the above duality. It would be correct to say that the berakhah makes Torah study permissible, but also that the blessing creates the context for study. 

It is for this similar reason that birkot ha-Torah appears in the Mishneh Torah’s Hilkhot Tefillah. Prayer and Torah study are two sides of the same coin, channels of communication between the Holy One Blessed Be He and His People. While prayer springs from below and reaches up towards heaven, Torah’s source comes from above and faces the earth. The blessings over the Torah, similar to prayer, originate in human action, which the Kabbalists call “Itaruta de-letata,” an awakening from below. They frame the discourse, indicate direction and purpose, and draw Torah study towards the student. 

In this context, let us examine another point. The third blessing, “asher bahar banu,” Who has chosen us, is recited again, after having been said during the morning blessings, by one who receives an aliyah in the synagogue. The communal Torah reading is the “tribal campfire” – the focal point of the religious community. Shabbat after Shabbat, year after year, the congregation gathers and creates a shared bond with the Torah, additional to the personal bond held by each individual. In many senses, the Torah reading provides context to the synagogue experience; it empowers the gathering of individuals into a community. These two aspects of Torah study are the “tzvei dinim of limud ha-Torah” – the two essential and different components of our engagement with Torah study, each requiring their own separate benediction. 

As was previously explained, the blessings have a dual role. On the one hand, they make it possible to approach the holy, enabling the immersion of the student into the world of Torah, and on the other, they are the catalyst for Torah study. Those who recite the berakhah with the proper mindset recognize the miraculous nature of what they are about to do, and are filled with desire and the will to delve deeply and find new insights. Suddenly they feel that their lungs are empty and must fill them with air, to breathe in spirituality and holiness. How can someone recite birkat Ha-Torah and not immediately sit down and read a chapter from the Humash or a page of the Gemara?

Perhaps this is the tragedy for some of our children. Sometimes the learning lacks context; a person does not understand why and with whom he or she is sitting and reading texts that are centuries and millennia old. What is the point of contact between the learner and the text, and where is it supposed to lead? Sometimes a young person may feel the need to walk away, for their engagement in Torah study has caused him or her to drown in the sea of material. The learner hears his or her entire life about the importance of Torah study and the grandeur of the tradition. This learner is provided with skills and interpretations, with knowledge and information, until he or she feels put upon, with no room to move and no ink in their quill in order to scribe the next chapter. The learner is blinded to the opportunity of owning the text, shaping the text, and using it to inspire and create a romantic rendezvous with God. 

Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, in his introduction to the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Sifra De-Tzniuta, explains the need for autonomy in Torah study: 

He [the Gaon of Vilna] did not gain satisfaction other than from the work he did in wisdom and intellect and ability and after much strain, when Heaven had mercy upon him and wellsprings of wisdom were revealed to him, secrets of secrets and hidden things inside hidden things, this was for him a gift of God. Other than this [aspects of mysticism], he [the Vilna Gaon] did not want them, even though the heavens wished to give him, without any work or exhaustion, celestial secrets via angelic messengers, masters of secrets and officers of Torah. He did not raise his eyes to this. It was close to him, and he distanced it. I heard from his sacred mouth that angelic messengers often rose early to his door, desiring to convey to him secrets of Torah without any work, and he did not turn his ear to them at all. One of the angelic messengers pressed him greatly, but he did not look upon the angel’s great appearance. He answered and told him, “I do not want my grasp of God’s Torah to come via any intermediary at all; my eyes are raised only to Him. That which He wishes to reveal to me and give me as my portion in His Torah for the work I have done with all of my energy, He will give me wisdom, from His mouth comes intellect and comprehension, when He gives me a comprehending heart…”

Heavenly messengers and angels appeared to the Vilna Goan and wished to bestow Torah learning upon him from above, without any exertion or work on his part. Yet he understood that accepting their assistance would mean giving up independence, losing his freedom and personal responsibility in the world of Torah. Without being oriented and grounded, a person can become lost; when it becomes overwhelming – he or she goes nowhere. Wonder vanishes, and the capacity for novel interpretation disappears. There is no air to breathe. Even when the sages recited the blessings over the Torah, perhaps the concept of making Torah one’s own had not been effectively communicated to their children. The berakhot had not been fully contextualized and thus not properly recited. 

Unfortunately, many of our sons and daughters feel stifled and disconnected in our communities. There may be many reasons for this. Free choice exists and mazal – good fortune – is necessary. “Everything depends on mazal, even the Torah Scroll in the Temple” (Zohar 3, 134a). However, we the community must take ownership of this challenge. The role of the community is to provide a person with context for a life of faith and Halakhah. Sometimes instead of providing that, it chains the learner to a single interpretation or to a particular tradition which allows no room for personal space to create a meaningful connection to Torah. 

Over the past several, long months our synagogues were locked, communities were separated and the Sefer Torah remained like an orphan, alone in the Holy Ark. Many tried to maintain at home the regular rhythms of prayer and read the Torah from a Humash. We all discovered new contexts, yearning for the community of the future. As we return to our synagogues, midrashot and yeshivot, we will have to act wisely to preserve wonder and novelty, to allow all worshippers, both men and women, air to breathe and the opportunity to write the next storied chapter within the Sea of Torah. 

(Some of the ideas reflected in this article were heard from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. They are not formally attributed as I know not where his ideas end and my musings begin).

Kenneth Brander
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is president and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone (OTS), an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living, and leadership in Israel and across the world. Prior to making aliyah in July 2018 and taking on the mantle of OTS, Rabbi Brander was Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University (YU), taught rabbinics at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and served as the inaugural David Mitzner Dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. He served as the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue from 1991 to 2005, overseeing its explosive growth from 60 families to more than 600 families. He is a 1984 alumnus of Yeshiva College, received his ordination from RIETS as well as a special ordination from Machon Puah center of medical ethics in Israel, and from then-Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, in the field of medical ethics, reproductive technology, and Halakhah. Rabbi Brander holds a Ph.D. in general philosophy and comparative literature.