Shiur #17: "Belovedness" Versus "Alienation"

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



I. Torah as the Remedy of Alienation

Though Rav Kook has few rivals in the profundity of his ideas, he usually does not present them in a well-developed format or in concrete detail. Let us, therefore, continue our study of a chapter from Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s book "Alei Shur,"[1] where the treatment is more systematic. The assumption that underlies his discussion is that the Torah's presence in the lives of its students must go well beyond the realm of study itself. It must embrace all of life's experiences, and especially all of a person's observance of mitzvot and worship of God. Rav Wolbe's teachings will bring us back again to the ideas of Rav Kook.


As we saw in the previous shiur, Rav Wolbe's point of departure is the problem of emotional distance from the Torah, a disturbing reality which is the lot of many who devote themselves to Torah study. Rav Wolbe identifies this distance from the Torah with the well-known human problem: alienation. The phenomenon of a person's detachment from himself seems to be a universal dilemma that is unrelated to any moral deficiency or to the need to connect to Torah. But as a thinker of the mussar movement, Rav Wolbe is convinced that the source of this syndrome lies in base personality traits and moral flaws. When evil desires and passions take hold of a person, and he becomes addicted to goals that are not really beneficial to him on the fundamental level, that do not advance his development or the realization of his innate “image of God,” then he effectively denies his very essence and distances himself from his true nature. In the words of Chazal, the evil inclination is a "strange god" (Shabbat 105b [see previous shiur]) dwelling in man's heart. As Rav Wolbe puts it, this force is liable to turn a person


Into a Real Stranger Devoid of Feeling, Understanding, Connectedness, and Love.


     The alienated person may not necessarily feel the depth of the entanglement into which he has fallen. He lives his life without meeting himself, and his mind is diverted in strange and sundry directions. When does he begin to feel discomfort or to suffer from distress the source of which he does not understand? When he engages in Torah study, or in general – when he prays or performs a mitzva.  Whether he is aware of this or not, these actions bring him into close contact with the world that is closest to him, and through which he is meant to express his personality and intimate experience, but he doesn't know how to do this. Most of his life is dedicated to superficial desires; he is incapable of lifting his hand in order to take hold of the outstretched palm of the Torah.


We have already learned from Rav Kook that the spirit of the Torah is the fullness of life, that is to say, the vitality of perfection and benevolence that penetrates all corners of existence. Therefore, even on the individual level, the Torah is "on my side," and not "against me," and essentially there is nothing more "on my side" than it is. Rav Wolbe expresses a similar idea through the following passage from Chazal. The Rabbis here repeatedly use the term “yedid” – beloved – in an opening cryptic statement, which is then homiletically deciphered:


Let the beloved (yedid) son of the beloved come and build the beloved for the beloved in the portion of the beloved and let the beloved (yedidim) achieve atonement. "Let the beloved (yedid)" this is King Shelomo, about whom it is written: "And he sent by the hand of Natan the prophet; and he called his name Yedidya, for the Lord's sake" (II Shemuel 12:25); "son of the beloved" this is Avraham, as it is written: "What has my beloved (yedidi) to do in my house" (Yirmiyahu 11:15); "and build the beloved" this is the Temple, as it is written: "How lovely (yedidot) are Your dwelling places" (Tehilim 84:2); "for the beloved" this is the Holy One, blessed be He, as it is written: "Now I will sing to my well-beloved (li-yedidi)" (Yeshayahu 5:1); "in the portion of the beloved" this is Binyamin, as it is stated: "And to Binyamin he said, The beloved of the Lord" (Devarim 33:12); "and let the beloved (yedidim) achieve atonement" this refers to Israel, as it is written: "I have given the dearly beloved (yedidut) of my soul into the hand of her enemies" (Yirmiyahu 12:8). (Menachot 53a)


The Torah is a world filled with love, peace, and good relations: between man and his Creator, his fellow, the world, and himself. It is possible to study Torah, to pray and to observe mitzvot in any situation, but this experience of belovedness is reserved for one who is not under the domination of the idol of "strangeness." The Gemara in Yoma (72b) brings the words of Rabbi Yochanan, who expounds the word "zer" in the verse, "And you shall make upon it a rim (zer) of gold round about" (Shemot 25:12), regarding the ark in which the tablets of the covenant rest, by way of keri u-khetiv (varying the reading by changing the vowels of the text’s letter-consonants):


If you are worthy (zakha), [the Torah] will be to you a crown (zer); if you are not worthy, it will be strange (zar) to you.


     In order to escape the alienation that detaches a person from the Torah, it is necessary for a person "lizkot," that is to say, to purify himself.


II. The "Acquisition" of Torah


From here Rav Wolbe derives the answer to his original question: Why are we not naturally and with inner desire attracted to the Torah? Because "we are not yet worthy, we have not yet refined ourselves." We must first purify ourselves from superficial drives and passions and strengthen our true desires. Rav Wolbe continues with a famous baraita, which can serve as an important source for the entire approach. This baraita is found in the chapter that was appended as the sixth chapter to tractate Avot, and deals with the qualifications by virtue of which the Torah may be acquired. Tradition has regarded it as the most important baraita of the entire chapter, and because of it the chapter is known as "the chapter of Kinyan Torah (acquisition of the Torah)." The term "kinyan" symbolizes a relationship that goes beyond study, and it joins the variety of linguistic expressions used by the Sages to describe our connection to Torah – as we have already seen in the past. And so – if a person does not want to content himself with the mere study of Torah, but rather wants to acquire it for his soul – what exactly must he do?


The baraita offers us forty-eight ways to acquire the Torah. Some of them are closely related to the cognitive process – attentive listening, ordered speech, close association with colleagues, attendance to scholars, and discussion with students. Others are components of the "rational character" about which we have learned in the past.[2] That is to say, a person must appreciate and esteem study and the search for truth as a central value, and this attitude must translate into a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of Torah study. Thus the baraita teaches that the Torah is acquired through moderation in conversation, moderation in pleasure, and the like.


     But many of the means for acquiring the Torah are general character traits:


Through humility and cheerfulness patience, a good heart being content with one's lot claiming no credit for oneself, loving God, loving mankind, loving righteousness, loving reproof


The acquisition of Torah values that are comprehended by way of the intellect is connected to and unites with its living spirit, and this is conditioned on emotional agreement. From this Rav Wolbe concludes that someone who wishes to acquire the Torah must make a twofold effort: the toil of Torah study, and the toil of acquiring positive character traits.


Rav Wolbe found a midrash that illuminates the meaning of these qualifications by virtue of which the Torah is acquired:


Forty-eight times it says in the Torah "well" (beer),corresponding to the forty-eight qualifications by virtue of which the Torah is acquired. This is what it says (Shir ha-Shirim 4:15): "A fountain of gardens, a well (be'er) of living waters." (Shir ha-Shirim Rabba, 4)


In the manifest Torah that we study there is a certain quality of immutability, of eternal laws and statutes engraved in stone. But the spirit of the Torah is a streaming well, whose waters are in constant motion. The verse in Shir ha-Shirim ends with the words, "and streams from Lebanon." Seeing that we have entered here into the world of midrashic imagery, it stands to reason that the darshan assumes our familiarity with Chazal's identification of "Lebanon" as a metaphor for the Temple. The prophecy regarding "living waters" flowing from Jerusalem (Zekharya 14:8) is also associatively activated in our imaginative minds. The well of vitality stems from the earthly place of the Shekhina, which symbolizes - in our concrete world - the heart of cosmic reality. Our connection to the Torah in this sense passes through forty-eight private "wells"; each good trait is a well-spring.


Rav Wolbe maintains that this characteristic of bubbling and streaming is a mark of quality in cognitive study itself. He daringly asserts:


We must annul the assumption that the Torah is studied only from books, and thus the more books that a person knows, the greater he is in Torah. "Ligris" ("studying the material") must certainly be done from a book, but "lemisbar" ("understanding") a person must do from himself. Regarding the question, "From where did Avraham learn the Torah," Chazal answered: "He learned Torah from himself" (Bereishit Rabba, 95, 2). And we must know that even today a true Torah scholar learns from himself. How does a person learn Torah "from himself"?... Regarding this Chazal come to teach us that a person digs these wells in his heart through the acquisition of the forty-eight qualities, each one being "a well of living water."


We have here an alternate formulation of Rav Kook's assertion that repentance from love –


raises the entire contents of study to a level of fruitfulness and welling forth that is unparalleled in the study of any discipline by itself. (Orot ha-Torah, 6; see shiur no. 15)


And so too in his letter to Rav M.Y. Segel, which we cited in shiur no. 12, Rav Kook explains at length and in simple language that developing the awe of Divinity and personal morality are preconditions for fruitful study.


In short, the "Alei Shur" analyzes closeness to the Torah as an emotional phenomenon, distinct from rational study. This dimension of closeness joins with study in an organic manner, but in order to understand it and how to nurture it, it is necessary to consider it as a separate entity. And in terms of our own nomenclature, this is the dimension of lishmah. Study that is not lishmah is study devoid of that great closeness, which is a person's inner and natural mission. To study Torah lishmah is to study with as full an understanding of the meaning of the Torah as is humanly possible, and devotion to this meaning. This devotion is found in one's mind and in one's heart and, as clearly emerges from the words of Rav Wolbe, also in the concrete ways of one's life.


III. Looking Back


We have taken the discussion of Torah lishmah back to the root emotional state which originally propelled us on our journey: emotional distance from Torah study. But in light of what we have learned from Rav Kook and from the "Alei Shur," it seems that the time has come to reevaluate some of the way-stations through which we have passed.


     Let us recall the foundation that we laid for understanding the issue of Torah lishmah. We spoke of two elements that fashion the basic structure of the "issue." First, there is the world of the will and personal existential experience, and the assumption that this world must find expression in Torah study; and second, there is the question debated in the classic literature – in which specific direction should this existential world be turned when a person is learning. Here we came across various different outlooks. Some said that the student must set his vision on the realization of the Torah in actual life. Others saw understanding of the words of the Torah themselves as the mission. The Chasidim maintained that the goal is to reach communion with God and self-effacement before Him. But in light of the teachings of Rav Kook, elements of which were just now presented in a different style by Rav Wolbe, what is left of all of that?


     It is my sense that something is happening here to all the disagreement regarding Torah lishmah. When the Torah appears before us in its grand dimensions, in the depth of its imperative, the wisdom of its guidance and its flowing vitality – it is impossible to connect to it without self-sanctification. The attempt to relate to the Torah exclusively through cognitive study is like trying to seize hold of it only with one’s fingertips, while leaving one’s essential self behind at a tense and painful distance. These pains register in our consciousness as feelings of frustration and emptiness. Someone who wishes to achieve a full hold on the Torah, to adopt and embrace it – must stop withholding his existential powers, his commitment, and his love. Everything is included – reason, action, communion - everything flows from one wellspring. Not only is it impossible to exclude any of these factors, but it is even difficult to see them as having the status of "serving" the study itself, as a mere preparation for it or something that makes it possible.


We can put it another way. When we began to acquaint ourselves with Rav Kook, we noted that we do not find in his writings any isolation of the intellectual dimension, that "dissociation principle" which can be detected in the words of Rav Chayim of Volozhin. We said that in Rav Kook’s view, it would seem that the cognitive effort is the very definition of Torah study, whereas when we speak of "lishmah" as an added dimension that accompanies Torah study, we are speaking about contact with "the soul of the Torah," when the person's motivations are identical with the will of God that is embodied in the Torah. We are still speaking about lishmah as an expression of the person's motivations, that which brings him to the Torah study itself, which is cognitive by nature. We could have stopped here, and then our established conceptual models would have remained in place.


But it seems to me that the more we assimilate what we have been seeing in the last few shiurim, we find ourselves thinking about the issue in a different way. When we speak of study lishmah, we are really not talking any more about an "added" dimension. Nor are we talking about the well-known triad – the motivation for study, the study itself and the goal of study - as separate concepts. The intuition that non-lishmah study leaves a gaping void in the soul, turns that very distinction between the mitzva itself and the objective or the motivation into an impossibility. And we understand that we have no alternative but to define the obligation "to occupy oneself in the words of the Torah" in a different manner.


We now absorb the full significance of the phenomenon that was noted in the past, that "study" is only one of the verbs used to describe our encounter with the Torah. The Torah demands a variegated and multi-channeled encounter that activates all of our emotional and practical faculties. The manifest focus of the encounter, as is the case with every human encounter, is cognitive; and with respect to the Torah, this cognitive dimension is scholarly, fruitful, innovative, profound and precise. But this is only the manifest layer. Underlying the analysis, dialectics and conceptualization, there is a stream of emotional movement which is the source of the fertility of these things, and this movement is filled with other verbs. Here we occupy ourselves in Torah, acquire it, live it, love it, struggle with it, cling to it, suffer with it, stand in awe of its commandments, realize and observe it – and all of these words do not do justice to the thing itself. Torah study lishmah is not cognition accompanied by a certain intention, but rather a different definition of the encounter, a new understanding of the relationship.


Based on this insight, let us stop for another look back on the long road that we have traveled. Our eyes can still spot, on the distant horizon, the problem of "triviality." Do you agree with me, that that we can now officially proclaim its final demise? But now we are faced with an even greater problem – the very opposite: How is it possible to live with such grandness, and how can one stand before such absolute totality?


The Torah's objective is perfection and benevolence, but living with it emphasizes our own weakness and our inability to approach the spirituality which it wishes to introduce into our world. This feeling is a trap, because it is liable to push us away and set up a barrier. Are there ways to deal with and overcome this obstacle? For the time being we will have to leave this as an open question, and leave the attempt to answer this challenge for later.[3]



(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The first chapter of "Ma'arekhet ha-Torah" (pp. 81-85).

[2] See shiur 4.

[3] See shiur no. 19.