Shiur #07: Where Does “Involvement” Come From?

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


A.   “Stirring the Hearts” for Torah: Is It Possible?


In the previous shiur, we promised to study the Nefesh Ha-chayim more closely in order to see how the author implements his plan to give his readers the outlook and guidance they need to reach the level of Torah lishmah. But before we return to Rav Chayim of Volozhin, I would like to take a brief look outside our traditional sources, as we’ve done in the past, in order to understand more clearly where we are headed with this discussion.


            I assume that by now the reader understands the general direction we are taking – moving the focal point of defining lishmah from the objective of learning to its internal, emotional origins.  But this contention, that the ideal student must strive for emotional involvement, confronts a certain conceptual obstacle. Side-stepping this obstacle is one of the attractions of Rabbi Lamm’s preferred emphasis on the purpose of learning, rather than the student’s internal motivation.  The problem can be seen when we try to answer the question: how does one develop an existential relationship to something?  How is it possible to “choose” an emotion, and to “activate” a deep-seated, emotional drive toward something?


            We have grown accustomed to viewing the emotional realm not as a developed, civilized place, but rather as a dense jungle, hardly touched by human hands.  Feelings simply “happen,” naturally and on their own, and we can only react to them.  Situations in our environment drag us into emotional arousal.  We are angered, saddened, enchanted, excited – all in response to external stimuli that affect our personalities in their current indiscernible and unalterable state.  Even Daniel Goleman’s scholarly and popular work, Emotional Intelligence, which deals with proper management of consciousness and emotion, speaks mainly of a person’s ability to control his emotions, rather than man’s influence on the cultivation and development of his emotional life.  However, the Torah’s commands, and especially those that are discussed in Mussar literature (particularly Chovot Ha-levavot), work off the opposite premise, namely, that man’s emotions can be directed and nurtured, and that they need to be addressed as part of a person’s religious obligations.


            The last several decades have seen a flourishing of research on emotions in the areas of neurology, psychology and philosophy.  This work has yielded, among other things, a new perspective that questions the aforementioned consensus.  Should we indeed relate to emotion as something that happens by itself?  The philosopher Robert Solomon, in his final work (True to Our Feelings [Oxford, 2006]), summarized many years of research and writing on the subject of emotions.  We will try to draw from his findings a few thoughts relevant to our topic of Torah lishmah.


B.   Directing Emotions as a Strategy


1) Emotions don’t just “happen”


            To what extent am I responsible for my emotions, and to what extent am I subject to their whims?  We are generally inclined to adopt the viewpoint that emotions just “happen” to us, but Solomon seeks to convince us that this inclination is not entirely justified.  It seems reasonable to assume that our preference is fed by what we stand to gain from this outlook: if I am overcome by emotional pressure against my will, then I cannot be blamed for the results (“Sorry, but I couldn’t control my emotions”).  In reality, however, a person learns that anger serves as an effective means of subduing people, and this awareness drives him to adopt a certain emotional posture – to grow angry even in response to a relatively mild stimulus.  True, there is no conscious decision made to become angry in each specific instance, but an emotional routine develops over time that causes this response.


            Let us take another example.  I am searching for work, and at my friend’s recommendation, I interview for a position at his workplace, and I am hired.  With time, however, I grow increasingly frustrated.  I had expected a significant promotion within a certain period, but the boss repeatedly skips me over in favor of other employees, which leads me to believe that my superiors don’t appreciate or recognize my skills.  This situation makes me angry.


            Did this emotional tempest just happen to me on its own?  To a large extent, yes; but on the other hand, I am not helpless.  I could, if I wish, continue stamping my feet in disgust and thinking about what I have to say to my ingrate boss who treats me this way despite all that I have contributed to the company.  I could even approach him and stand up for myself, and tell him what I think in so many words (though the wisdom of such an approach is questionable).  We may think that this growing crescendo of anger and humiliation is a foregone conclusion, but this is only partially true, because I do have options.  One of them is to follow the emotional track of confrontation (even if only imaginary) with the powers that be, and receive some (warped?) satisfaction from the adrenaline that flows in my veins.  Alternatively, I can choose to be more moderate, and blame my friend who brought me into this situation, which would transfer my anger to a somewhat less sensitive point.  I can also try to understand why this happened, and devise some rational plan to remedy the situation.  Or, I could just find another job.  Generally, diverting attention away from the source of anger is a good strategy for dealing with anger.  I could enjoy the advantages that my current job does, after all, offer me, and if my talents are not being maximized at work, I could use the extra time to be with my family, enjoy recreational activities, do volunteer work or find a hobby.


            We can also think of an opposite example – building positive relationships.  Let’s say a young man and young woman meet in some framework – work, the neighborhood, a youth program, etc. – and “chemistry” develops between them.  They discover that they have mutual attraction, shared goals, similar outlooks, and compatible lifestyles.  In our culture, we might identify this as “love at first sight,” but in truth, what happens next cannot be anticipated and is certainly not automatic.  All kinds of practical questions arise that have direct implications upon the advancement of the emotional bond.  Should they continue meeting and work to develop this relationship, either privately or in a group setting?  Should they speak to each other on the phone, and, if so, how often?  Should they meet each other’s families?  In other words, they must decide whether or not they want to embark on the path of building a relationship, and with what intensity.


2) The two factors that impact upon the directing of emotions


            If we analyze these examples, we will discern two factors that “open” the world of the emotions to positive intervention and render it susceptible to our influence.  The first is viewing the emotions as a long-term process, rather than a sudden outburst resulting from a one-time stimulus.  When we limit our perspective to an isolated incident (like “first sight”), then we indeed see the person as being emotionally affected by this unique experience.  But the cases described above demonstrate that emotions are not feelings that surface within a person as a result of some event, but rather a way of relating to the world.  They are thus an approach, a strategy and a way of dealing with situations, which spread and develop over the course of an extended process.  The individual himself plays a decisive – though not exclusive – role in forging this process.


            The second factor that emerges relates to the way in which the emotions are built.  On the one hand, they do not occur entirely “by themselves,” while on the other hand, they do not depend only on calculated, measured actions.  There is a middle-ground which is critical for this process, which we called “following the path.”  Hence, when we speak of emotions as a “strategy,” we do not mean refer to a well-conceived plan that can be controlled at every stage.  There is, indeed, a basic, general awareness (mainly at the moment when a fateful decision is made) of the dynamic that will emerge, and as time goes on, one certainly supports and abets this dynamic.  But complete awareness of all the stages as they unfold does not exist and is not necessary.  Actions and decisions play a critical role, though much of the time the actions will be spontaneous, with only partial consciousness and without attention or planning.  A person absolutely bears responsibility for the emotional bonds that emerge, due to his will and his intention to begin and embark upon the process.  Nevertheless, the power of the existential development lies in the energy of its intrinsic dynamic, which goes beyond the person’s conscious involvement in advancing the process.  Stepping onto the path of confrontation or of courtship is done through a conscious decision, but the progression once on that path depends also on forces that have been activated, beyond one’s deliberate decision-making.


            All this has been said from a general, human perspective, but similar mechanisms exist regarding a person’s relation to his religious-spiritual world, the maturation of his faith and his connection to avodat Hashem.  These mechanisms can give us a clearer idea of how one’s attachment to Torah – which we call “lishmah” – grows and develops.


            This introduction will help us as we approach the next stage – studying Rav Chayim of Volozhin’s practical guidance for building a relationship with Torah study.


C.   Fear as a Prerequisite for Wisdom


1) The importance of yir’at Shamayim in Torah learning


            Let us now return to the fourth section of Nefesh Ha-chayim and move past chapters 2-3, where the cognitive definition of lishmah is outlined.


            In chapters 4-9, the author describes a preparatory stage that must precede Torah learning – several “non-cognitive” moments of focusing on the feeling of yir’at Hashem.  We will limit our direct citations from the work, in the hope that the readers will take our advice and study the material itself to see the complete picture.


            At the beginning of chapter 4, Rav Chayim qualifies his previous assertion that the student’s objective must be to understand the material, and not to achieve fear of God.  Here, he establishes that, on the other hand, it is inconceivable that one can study Torah without yir’at Shamayim (“chalila”).  Therefore, he writes, one must pay special attention to cultivating fear of God each time one prepares to learn, as he will explain later, in chapters 6-7.  In chapter 5, Rav Chayim, based on passages from Chazal, depicts yir’at Shamayim as a storehouse[1] which contains Torah wisdom.[2]  A person can store the “grain” of Torah in a warehouse only in accordance with the size of the warehouse.  The significance of the “warehouse” lies in the fact that without it, there is nowhere to store the grain, and the grain therefore cannot be preserved.  Moreover, God will not even give such a person the Torah from the outset, as the absence of yir’at Shamayim will cause it to be ruined.



            How are we to understand this?  Why does fear of God constitute a precondition for wisdom?


            We might view this condition as a moral concept.  This indeed seems to emerge from a number of the sources cited by Rav Chayim, including the Gemara’s comment in Yoma (72b):


Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: What does it mean, “What good is money in the hands of the fool to purchase wisdom if he has no heart” (Mishlei 17:17)?  Woe unto the foes of Torah scholars[3] that engage in Torah but do not have fear of Heaven!


This passage appears in the context of severe moral castigation.  In the course of the discussion, we for example find the following:


“You shall plate it [the ark] inside and out” (Shemot 25:11).  Rava said: Any Torah scholar whose interior does not resemble his exterior is not a Torah scholar.[4]  Abayei – or, perhaps, Rabba bar Ula – said: he is called “abominable,” as it says, “He is indeed abominable and despicable – he who drinks wrongdoing like water” (Iyov 15:16).[5]


It seems that the Sages here react vehemently to the person who lays claim to mastering Torah but lacks basic morals and yir’at Shamayim, a situation which causes chilul Shem Shamayim (desecration of the divine Name).  Therefore, one who aspires to become a Torah scholar must first attain a proper moral and religious stature.  The ensuing discussion in the Gemara reinforces this “moral” understanding of the dependence between fear of God and scholarship


2) The essence of yir’at Shamayim according to Rav Chayim


            From the perspective of Rav Chayim of Volozhin, however, the explanation does not end here.  It emerges from his comments that the dependence between Torah and yir’a is much stronger, and that there exists an essential connection between the two.  Let us first examine the kind of yir’a of which Rav Chayim speaks.  Had Rav Chayim been concerned with the acceptability of the student’s spiritual stature, we would expect him to dwell on the classic aspects of yir’a with which we are familiar: fear of sin, fear of retribution, or a sense of religious awe (yir’at ha-romemut).  However, when Rav Chayim speaks of the arousal of yir’a, he emphasizes a very specific strain – fear that relates specifically to Torah, and that bears directly on the imminent act of learning:


It is proper, before one begins, to contemplate … pure fear of God with purity of heart, to confess his sins from the depths of his heart, so that his Torah shall be holy and pure, and he should have in mind to attach himself through his studies to the Torah, to the Almighty – meaning, to attach himself with all his energies to the Word of God, Halakha, and he is thereby actually attached to God (may He blessed), as it were, for God (may He be blessed) and His will are one. (Nefesh Ha-chayim 4:6)


…and be purified from his iniquity through thoughts of repentance so that at the time he engages in the holy Torah he could connect and attach himself to His word and will, may His Name be blessed. (Nefesh Ha-chayim 4:7)


This feeling of yir’at Shamayim is not based mainly on the greatness of the Creator, but rather on the exalted and sacred stature of the Torah.  There is no doubt – and to this Rabbi Lamm agrees – that this emotional preparation is intended to create the level of lishmah.  The “warehouse” of yir’at Shamayim is not simply a precondition for learning, but is rather part of the learning, which defines its nature and essence.  Rabbi Lamm, however, faced a dilemma.  Once Rav Chayim declared that lishmah relates to cognition, what place is there for all these “devotional” elements in creating the experience of lishmah?  We are already familiar with his essential approach on this matter. Rabbi Lamm maintains that the main lishmah is intellectual, but this must be assisted by other, secondary components, so that the learning does not turn into a simple intellectual exercise.[6]


            I have already mentioned the difficulty inherent in this approach, and it seems to me that a simpler, more direct understanding leads to the conclusion discussed in our last shiur.  Namely, the intellectual goal is anchored in emotional motivation, and Rav Chayim takes great pains to strengthen that motivation.  The desire to learn and understand stands upon an existential foundation, and this foundation is love of Torah, recognition of its importance, and being in awe of its stature.  The moments of contemplation before learning express Torah’s lofty stature, as even approaching it requires purification and preparation, and involvement in it connects the student with the word of the Almighty.  Rav Chayim urges students to ensure that this image is engraved upon their hearts before they begin studying.


D.   Another Look at the “Dissociation Principle”


Previously, we spoke of the separation that Rav Chayim draws between the realm of religious experience and the intellectual realm of Torah study.  He explicitly demands separating the intellectual engagement from any conscious ambition for deveikut (spiritual attachment to God).  Rabbi Lamm views this concept as a fundamental guiding principle in Rav Chayim’s outlook, as the engagement in spiritual achievements undermines the level of concentration and clarity of thought required for learning.


            This adverse effect on intellection is indeed possible, when religious experience is taken to be the goal of learning, as it was to the Chasidim.  But we have already contended that love, appreciation and emotional connection have no ill effect on learning if they constitute not the goal of learning, but rather the source of the desire to learn.  To the contrary – the intensification of these emotions will only bolster the intellectual effort.  In this spirit, let us recall Rav Chayim’s assertion that the larger the “warehouse” of yir’at Shamayim, the greater one’s ability to study Torah.  Indeed, it emerges from a number of Rav Chayim’s comments that despite his demand to focus on learning for the sake of learning, its dissociation from the experiential realm is not absolute.  In chapter 9, for example, he writes:


In truth, the person engrossed in the study of Torah lishmah – as we explained the concept of lishmah in chapter 3 – does not require much work, exertion and time studying works of yir’a for the fear of Him, may He be blessed, to be instilled within his heart… For the sacred Torah will, by itself, bestow upon him fear of God with minimal time and effort [invested] in this, and this is the way and power of Torah lishmah… “And it enrobes him with humility and fear” (Avot 6:1).


            Similarly, in chapter 31, we learn about the connection between learning Torah lishmah and repentance:


For the primary, true repentance, which is [repentance] out of love [as opposed to repentance from fear], comes only through proper engagement in Torah, as it says in [the list of the qualities earned through Torah, Avot 6:1], “he loves the Almighty” – for the love of Torah covers [atones for] all misdeeds… Similarly, one who engages in Torah lishmah, even if he was first soiled by grave iniquities and sins… nevertheless, through engagement in Torah his heart will assuredly be set straight, for the light within it will certainly return him to goodness.  The goodness will gradually, little by little, overtake the evil, until ultimately, and necessarily, the goodness will overtake [the evil] and spread throughout him completely, and he will then be purged of uncleanness and totally encompassed with purity.


The student focuses on a task that is exclusively intellectual. Yet this engagement enhances his qualities of humility, fear of God, love of God, sanctity and purity – all those spiritual qualities which were expressed during those moments of contemplation before learning, but were abandoned during learning in the name of the “Dissociation Principle.”  How can we explain this?  Is this simply due to the supernatural power of Torah, or can we perhaps identify some other explanation?


            Somebody who read the first half of this essay knows the answer full well.  The student whom Rav Chayim addresses is aware of the spiritual worlds and the spiritual weight of Torah.  If this perception is firmly entrenched in his heart, there exists a dynamic of closeness between the student and the Torah and its values. 


To further illustrate this dynamic, think of a couple standing under the chupa.  At that solemn and emotional moment, they envision the bond and relationship about to be created.  In actuality, however, what will establish this bond is their shared life, even though they will not be aware of this development at every step along the way.  Their consciousness and attention will generally be devoted to the practical aspects of managing a home and a family, activities which, on the surface, have no “glory.”  But deep inside their hearts they realize the profound dimensions of those activities, and the greatness of that which develops.  The meaning is perceived from within, and is usually not consciously spelled out.  As we saw, the dynamic proceeds normally in a spontaneous manner, without the conscious consideration of the two parties.


            According to Rav Chayim, one who studies Torah “stands under the chupa,” in a sense, during those moments of contemplation before learning.  It is then that he sees before him the spiritual meaning of his intellectual immersion in the waters of Torah.  But after this declaration of his intent, the process gets underway and moves along by itself.  The conscious, mental engagement focuses on the actual substance, not on its meaning.  However, the in-depth study of the discussions of Abayei and Rava carries with it a spiritual quality that is preserved in the heart, and this allows the intensification of the living bond with the essence of Torah to continue unabated – “it enrobes him with humility and fear”; “and he will then be purged of uncleanness and encompassed with purity.”


            Viewing the fourth section of Nefesh Ha-chayim as built upon the integrated moral and spiritual outlook which was outlined in the first sections of the work gives us a fuller understanding of its approach to Torah lishmahThe existential connection to Torah is the emotional motivation to learn, and this connection continues to grow and develop the more one advances in the knowledge and understanding of Torah.  This is Torah lishmah.  One the one hand, it touches transcendence, but on the other hand, its development proceeds along lines and using emotional processes that are familiar to us from our normal life-experience.


Translated by David Silverberg



[1] He uses the word otzar, which in Talmudic jargon refers to a place used for storing grain (or other things).

[2] Among the sources for this analogy is the Gemara’s comment in Shabbat (31a): “Reish Lakish said: What does it mean, ‘The faithfulness of your occasions shall be a source of fortitude, salvations, wisdom and knowledge; fear of the Lord is its storehouse’?  ‘The faithfulness’ – refers to the order of Zera’im; ‘your occasions’ – refers to the order of Mo’ed; ‘strength’ – refers to the order of Nashim; ‘salvations’ – refers to the order of Nezikin; ‘wisdom’ – refers to the order of Kodashim; and ‘knowledge’ refers to the order of Tahorot.  And nevertheless, ‘fear of the Lord is its storehouse.’ ”

[3] The reference, of course is to the Torah scholars themselves, not their “foes.” The formulation is in keeping with the Rabbis’ practice of euphemism (“sagi nahor”).

[4] The verse cited by the Gemara describes the gold plating of the ark in the Mishkan, which contained within it the luchot – the tablets Moshe brought from Mount Sinai.  It would seem that Chazal compared a Torah scholar to the ark because the Torah is “placed” within both.  And just as the ark must be plated with gold both inside and out, similarly, a Torah scholar’s interior must be consistent with his external appearance of piety.

[5] Rashi explains, “A person who drinks Torah like water but commits wrongdoing.”

[6] Rabbi Dr. Michael Abraham, in his work Enosh Ke-chatzir, understands Rav Chayim’s approach in a manner similar to Rabbi Lamm’s.  The central meaning of lishmah is “for the thing itself,” in accordance with the outlook of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, as we discussed in a previous installment.  However, other goals related to spiritual achievements must be added to this primary intent.