Shiur #16: The Challenge of Identifying With the Spirit of the Torah

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


I. Different "Languages" of Mussar Teachings


Our goal in this shiur is to continue translating Rav Kook's definition of Torah lishmah - as drawing close to and coming into contact with the Torah's inner objective - into terms that are more focused, concrete and well-defined. Our focus now is upon personal mussar, which Rav Kook sees as the primary channel for connecting to Torah. When we speak of mussar in this context, we are not referring specifically to a conceptual or philosophical realm (i.e. “ethics”), but primarily to the practical discipline that seeks out ways to perfect man and his personality. As a prelude to this shiur, I wish to discuss an important point that is valid with respect to mussar-related matters in general, as well as our specific context.


A person's ability to derive concrete benefit from a particular guidance or instruction sometimes depends on its manner of presentation, on its style or "language." Diverse sources dealing with a particular topic differ not only with respect to content, but also with respect to form and style. Sometimes our ability to assimilate what we read depends not only upon rational understanding or agreement with the content, but also upon acceptance of the form in which it is stated and the manner in which it is expressed. It is very possible that two authors will say essentially the same thing, but nevertheless only one of them will "hit the target" with the reader. This phenomenon depends upon various factors, e.g., personality, background and the like.


Another factor likely to influence this process should also be mentioned. A reader's openness to the influence of a particular source sometimes depends on temporary factors, e.g.: What is my mood? Am I pensive? Am I agitated? Depressed? Calm? Spiritual? "Mystical"? Practical? Depending on the answer to this question, one may feel the need for something that communicates with the present state of mind. The opposite may also be true: Perhaps the best thing is to examine a source that is contrary to one’s present feeling in order to restore proper balance and take one out of the one-sided perspective.


A particular book may or may not be of value to me, not only because of my passing mood, but also because of my present stage in life. People change and develop, and go through various stages as they proceed along their spiritual path. A person who in his late adolescence thinks that he has no common language with classical mussar texts or chassidic tracts may discover a few years later that he has developed an openness to them, and even a need for them.


Lastly, most of us are exposed to various ways of thinking and conceptual systems, many of which we internalize and utilize in rapid succession. For example, rational and emotional elements co-exist within us, and both of them find frequent expression. Therefore, were we to learn something in purely intellectual terms, the absorption of the contents would remain weak as long as we don't relate also to their emotional dimension, because the "emotional part" of us would feel that the matter is not relevant to it. We can expand this idea and say that our complexity as modern people demands that we "cover" educational ideas from many different sides, using all the languages and styles in which we ordinarily think and speak.


Back to the matter at hand. We have cited many ideas in the name of Rav Kook, z"l. His teachings are broad and profound, but his style is very unique, and our ability to derive benefit and personal meaning from them is dependent on the factors outlined above. Accordingly, it is very important that we try to complement what we have learned from him by studying parallel sources. Incidentally, we will see that Rav Kook is not alone in his views, and that his ideas echo in writings belonging to a different school of thought.


Let us now approach our topic – the ethical dimension of the connection to Torah – through the eyes of one of the representatives of the mussar movement. Despite the very different style, it is clear to me that Rav Kook would identify with the following discourse.


II. The Emotional Connection to the Torah in "Alei Shur" – a Hidden Light


Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt"l, was perhaps the most famous and influential representative of the teachings of the mussar movement in our generation. The first volume of his (anonymous!) work, "Alei Shur," was published in 5727 (1967), and the second volume was published twenty years later. In my opinion, these two volumes constitute the most serious effort to provide comprehensive and systematic guidance for self-improvement in the spirit of the mussar movement.


Our analysis is based "Alei Shur," vol. 2, the first chapter of "Ma'arekhet ha-Torah" (pp. 81-85). The writing here is very different from that of Rav Kook, and I would particularly emphasize one characteristic. Whereas Rav Kook would write short, concise paragraphs, demanding a precise and laborious reading of each word, Rav Wolbe presents his ideas in full detail, developing them in stages in an easily comprehensible style.


            Rav Wolbe's discussion returns us to our first shiur, to the point before we had even opened the Nefesh ha-Chayim. Recall that we opened with a consideration of Torah study in our generation. We noted that the contemporary student's difficulty in finding emotional meaning in the Torah drove us to examine the concept of Torah lishmah. Rav Wolbe opens with the very same question: What is the source of a person's emotional distance from Torah? Were we to feel closeness to the Torah,


we would run towards learning, we would achieve true repentance, we would be able pray with an outpouring of our souls and without difficulty!


            Thus writes Rav Wolbe, and already with these words we sense that his ideas concerning "Torah" are connected to the motifs of the past few shiurim - we are not dealing merely with the realm of study, but with a comprehensive system that includes study, prayer and the other mitzvot. This being the case, someone who truly feels close should feel close to the entire system.


            Rav Wolbe continues by adding another layer to the notion of "closeness to Torah." He brings an important source that is not infrequently cited in the literature of the mussar movement. The citation is from "Derekh Eretz Chayim," the Ramchal's (Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzatto) introduction to his work, "Kelach (138) Pitchei Chokhma":


See that both of them were created with the same quality, man's intellect and the Torah that makes him wise. Regarding the Torah it says: "Is not My word like a fire, says the Lord" (Yirmiyahu 23:29), informing us thereby that it is true, the Torah is a real light that was given to Israel to enlighten him. For it is not like foreign wisdom and mundane knowledge which is only knowledge of something that the intellect can acquire with effort. But the Torah is holy, found at the highest heights. When a person occupies himself in the Torah down below, a light illuminates his soul so that it may reach heaven. "And the Torah is light" – real light, and not merely wisdom, and not imagined light, but real light from above.


            The closeness between man and the Torah ("both of them were created with the same quality") is presented here with emphasis being placed on the fact that the Torah is not merely intellectual content. We are dealing with something more essential - the Torah is light, and the Torah student connects to this light, and becomes connected to the source of the Torah in heaven. Later in the passage, however, Ramchal also expresses the idea that this light is "hidden," or in our terms - it is, unfortunately, not felt. The light of the Torah is likened to the fire in a coal: it is pent up inside, and only human effort can cause it to burn and appear outside. Why is this light hidden away? The Ramchal explains that a simple revelation of the light would nullify the evil inclination and man's free choice. For this reason, the Torah's Giver decreed that "the light within it," i.e., a person's emotional connection to the Torah, is conditioned on his efforts.


            Ramchal's words describe in picturesque manner what we already know from our own experience. "The hiding away of the light" expresses the emotional distance, whereas the potential existence of this light inside the coal accounts for our feeling of disappointment. For were there no "light inside" to which we could theoretically connect ourselves, we wouldn't be troubled by the situation. But we still lack detailed understanding of how the detachment occurs – an understanding that might also show us the way how to overcome it.


III. The Foundations of Human Alienation


In order to reach the depths of the problem, Rav Wolbe addresses one of the crises with which the modern world is greatly occupied: alienation, as a psychological phenomenon. That is to say, man's alienation from himself. Many wise people have expressed their opinions on the foundations of this alienation, and Rav Wolbe proceeds to explain his position from the perspective of the teachings of mussar. This discussion has a bearing on our question, because Rav Wolbe wishes to argue that man's inability to find satisfaction in the Torah testifies not only to his emotional distance from the Torah, but first and foremost to his estrangement from himself.


Where do we find that the Sages allude to the problem?


Rav Wolbe, like Chazal before him, does not use the modern term "alienation," but rather a parallel concept that is very prevalent in Torah literature – "zarut," "strangeness (=estrangement)." He finds a rabbinic statement that points to the psychological source of strangeness in the sense of alienation from the self:[1]


Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of Chilfa ben Agra who said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri: He who rends his garments in his anger, he who breaks his vessels in his anger, and he who scatters his money in his anger - regard him as an idolater, because such are the wiles of the evil inclination: Today he says to him, 'Do this'; tomorrow he tells him, 'Do that,' until he bids him, 'Go and serve idols,' and he goes and serves [them]. Rabbi Avin said: What verse [intimates this]? "There shall be no strange god in you, nor shall you worship any foreign deity" (Tehillim 81:10) - who is the strange god that resides in man himself? Say, that is the evil inclination. (Shabbat 105b)


            Chazal are describing here a process of moral deterioration, at the end of which a person finds that he has sunk to the lowest level of idolatry. Rabbi Avin explains that the service of strange gods in actual practice starts with the service of the strange god within the person himself. He who is controlled by his evil inclination is estranged from himself, and loses practical control over his life and selfhood.


            What is so "strange" and alienating about the evil inclination? Isn’t following the uninhibited instinct a free expression of a person's will? Rav Wolbe does not see it that way. He demonstrates that the moral corruption of a person's character and personality estranges and alienates him from himself:


There is strangeness in every evil trait. The Rosh writes in Orchot Chayim, no. 24: "A person should distance himself from levity and from anger, for they confuse his spirit and the mind." This confusion is one the secrets of strangeness. King Shlomo, may he rest in peace, said: "But envy is the rottenness of bones" (Mishlei 14:30). Its plain meaning is its literal sense: Someone who envies others sees good only in others, but the good in himself he sees not at all or else he belittles it, and he becomes so estranged from himself that his strength decays. Lust for money and pleasure and running after honor remove a person from the world, that is to say, from one’s true inner world… Estrangement is especially felt through anger: after a person's anger abates, he is amazed how during his time of anger "he was not himself" – while he was angry he really turned into a different person.


            The passions that operate within a person are not his real self. His "inner" and "true" world reveals itself through self-awareness, transparency, balance and choice. Patterns of behavior shaped by evil traits and domineering impulses constitute activity that is estranged from the person's self.


            The problem, however, does not stop here. The next stage is also very familiar from the reality of psychological life. When a person is estranged from himself, his interpersonal relationships are also estranged and alienated, and he cannot form a real connection with another person. The "Alei Shur" adds also a third layer, following the aforementioned words of Chazal: This emotional state also affects a person's relationship with God. A person becomes estranged from God as well, and goes off to "serve strange gods."


            Rav Wolbe goes on to say that this tragic situation of total detachment is detachment from the Torah. Or to put it from the reverse direction: being severed from the Torah is tantamount to a cutting-off from the whole of life. The explication of this point awaits us in our further study of Rav Wolbe’s essay.


            However, we can already see that these ideas are closely related to Rav Kook's assertion that the Torah is "the source of life," and that the absence of inner communication with it constitutes a deep and serious emotional failure. It remains to be seen how Rav Wolbe uses the Torah in man's struggle to renew the connection with himself.


IV. Interim Summary


            I would have preferred not to stop temporarily at this “low” point, but we will have to wait until the next shiur in order to learn about the stage of remedy and repair. On the other hand, this portrayal served an important purpose. We saw how Rav Kook writes about emotional involvement in the Torah from a positive and promising perspective, but it is impossible to really understand the significance of his ideas without being aware of the opposite perspective. Just as Rav Chayim of Volozhin spoke about a person who is detached from the Torah as one who is drowning in a tempestuous sea, so too the "Alei Shur," in order to propose a solution, must go into detail and explain how this tragic distancing comes into being. Understanding the difficulty is a precondition for the next stage. Hopefully, we will see how identifying with the spirit of the Torah can return a person to normal life and even restore him to the path to spiritual elevation.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In the Torah, the trait of being "strange" (“zar”) is assigned to people or objects that do not belong to the priesthood or to the Divine service in the Temple (e.g., "a strange incense" [Shemot 30:9]). Only in one place in the Torah does this root have a different meaning, i.e., idols: "They provoked him to jealousy with strange gods ("be-zarim"), with abominations that provoked Him to anger" (Devarim 32:16). This usage is even more exceptional in light of the fact that the Torah usually refers to idols by the term "other gods" ("elohim acherim").

In the books of the Prophets, we find development and expansion regarding the use of the word "zar." There the word means "foreign," as in "as for your land, strangers (zarim) devour it in your presence" (Yeshayahu 1:7), and as is evident in the parallelism displayed in the verse, "There shall be no strange god (el zar) among you, nor shall you worship any foreign deity (el neikhar)" (Tehillim 81:10).

This expansion is reflected in the fact that Chazal replaced the biblical expression, "worship of other gods" with the common phrase, "strange worship" ("avoda zara").

Nevertheless, it may be assumed that the term "zarut" still denotes foreign, non-Jewish cultural affiliation.