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What Does It Mean to Be a Ben-Torah? (Part 1 of 2)

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



What Does It Mean to Be a Ben-Torah?

Part 1 of 2



            I would like to address a fundamental question: What are the goals of a student in our yeshiva?  We can speak of this both in terms of his individual attainments and in terms of his contribution to the community.  Let us begin with the former.  The individual character we want to cultivate can be defined with reference to Rabbi Shimon ha-Tzaddik's famous saying (Avot 1:2):  "The world stands on three pillars:  on Torah, on avoda [worship], and on gemilut chasadim [kind deeds]."  If this is true of the macrocosm, of the world at large, it is no less true of the microcosm of the individual, the world which, according to the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5), each and every person constitutes.




            In the realm of Torah, of course, the goal of a student entering the yeshiva is to leave it a talmid chakham, a scholar both in breadth and depth.  This means one who is not only able and eager to open a Gemara, wherever he is, but who also strives to extend and expand his knowledge to encompass the entire Torah, in all its depth and breadth.  First, this entails attaining fundamental knowledge of Torah in its totality.  Second, one must acquire the tools - both bibliographic and analytic - necessary to attain higher levels of learning. 


            The student is expected to develop those skills which will allow him to seize a topic and immerse himself in it, to become accustomed to understanding Torah clearly and fundamentally, to acquire both analytic proficiency as well as the ability to view a subject from all sides.  All halakhic works should be accessible to him, and the search for truth should accompany him in all his studies; he should be able, at all times, to ask the right questions.  His imagination should be fertile and creative in order to discover, in every subject, in every particular halakha, the rich range of possible explanations contained within it. 


            Beyond "knowledge" and "tools," a student who has spent several years in the beit midrash should come to possess an accumulation of fundamental concepts that are the keys to further learning.  These concepts, some inherited from previous generations and others his personal creation, will enable him to understand topics accurately in every area of Torah.  The more one descends into the depths of the Halakha, the more difficult it becomes to encompass all the details and certainly to remember them, but lucid conceptualizations of key terms are surely attainable.  Hence, beyond a mere congeries of information, one must strive to master a methodology of learning and to acquire a repository of halakhic rudiments.


            To be sure, that which is most primary in the study of Torah is not the strictly intellectual dimension of creative learning, but rather one's attachment to Torah. A yeshiva student should be intimately connected to the Torah, to the point of yearning for it.  It is hoped that he will regard those parts of Torah which he has already learned as a morasha, an inheritance (as the Rabbis refer to it). There are two aspects to this.  In the simplest sense, an inheritance implies ownership.  Thus, Chazal often speak of kinyan Torah - taking possession of Torah:  indeed, an entire chapter at the end of Avot is dubbed Kinyan Torah. One does not merely traverse Torah, nor does one take a tour through a tractate; rather, one conquers it, possesses it, and it becomes part of one's spiritual estate. 


            However, there is a need to go beyond mere possession, with all the attendant emotions implied therein; there must be an even deeper connection.  "Do not read morasha [inheritance] but me'orasa [betrothed]" (Pesachim 49b). The attachment to Torah must be brimming with love, yearning, and passion - specifically for that which has not yet been learned.  One who labors at three orders of the Talmud must feel that he is missing the other three; the emotional attachment to and longing for Torah consumes him simply by virtue of its being Torah, given to Moshe and to each individual Jew by God.  The thirst for Torah, to be connected with it, to acquire it, should exist with respect to many things which appear distant, as it were, no less than with respect to those things which are, practically speaking, closer.  One should feel with all his heart and soul that he is no more exempt from Uktzin than from Bava Kama.  Of course, not everyone achieves the same amount.  But woe to the person who feels that he is exempt from aspiring to expand his horizons, utterly exempt from an entire subject.  The spiritual attachment - the interconnectedness with and cleaving to Torah, the joy, the involvement - is the foundation of any serious effort to discover the truth that is in the Torah, to find the imagination within it.  This is one pillar, one aspiration of the ben-Torah.




            The second pillar is avoda - worship.  In the narrow sense, avoda refers to the Temple service.  However, it is clearly possible to use this term to refer to the service of God (avodat Hashem) in its broadest scope.  The Torah itself refers to the fear of God - surely an important component of avodat Hashem - as a foundation-stone of Judaism:  "What does the Lord your God ask of you, but to fear Him..." (Devarim 10:12).


            In this sense, worship is expressed on two planes:  internal and external.  One level of this faith is deep-rooted, thoroughly penetrating the person, not merely in the relatively superficial sense of the acceptance of various precepts, an intellectual dogmatics, but rather a consciousness and awareness - total and continuous - of the reality of the Creator and of man's relationship to Him.  Here we encounter the connection between avoda (worship) and avdut (servitude and subservience) noted by the Maharal.  As the mishna in Avot states (2:4):  "Nullify your will before His will."  This is the aim - to apprehend the reality of one's attachment to the Creator and to relate to it not only through terminology, concepts, and an intellectual perspective, but through one's deepest emotions and one's practical behavior.


            Several major factors should engender a theocentric rather than an anthropocentric perspective.  First, a person must sense his utter dependence on God, and feel with all his being God's continuing support; were God to loosen His grip on him, even for a moment, he would fall into the lowest abyss.


            Second, one must not only experience this feeling of dependence, but also recognize clearly that God does not owe us anything; we are indebted to Him. All we receive is to be viewed as a manifestation of God's grace, in the sense of "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy" (Shemot 33:19).


            Third, a person must strive for his worship to be the maximum he is capable of, and that it be worship for its own sake.  Not, as the Sifri (Ekev, 41) says, in order for him to bear the title "Rabbi," not to be awarded the position of Rosh Yeshiva, nor even in order to merit the World-to-Come.  It should be only for the sake of loving God.


            Fourth, one should not only relate to God but be aware of His constant presence.  This awareness is twofold.  On the one hand, the constancy of one's attachment to God expresses itself in the feeling that the person is surrounded by the Divine Presence, taken captive, as it were.


For no word is yet on my tongue, and lo, O Lord, You know it all.  You have beset me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.  Where shall I go from Your spirit? or where shall I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend up into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in She'ol, behold, You are there.  If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall Your hand lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.  (Tehillim 139:4-10)


This sense of constant presence and attachment approaches the sensation of imprisonment.  At the same time, it is not just the sense of being surrounded by the Divine Presence, but of pursuing it.  "My soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; to see Your power and Your glory, as I have seen You in the sanctuary"  (Tehillim 63:2-3).  This thirst, the incurable sense that I still lack the intimacy of God's companionship, constitutes the foundation of worship as well as its objective.


            In addition to the internal-experiential level, there is, as I stated earlier, also an external-actional side to worship, where worship is largely expressed as servitude.  Minimally, a ben-Torah must be subservient to the Halakha, manifesting caution with regard to proscriptions and diligence with regard to prescriptions.  Furthermore, one must cultivate a sense of servitude by maintaining a constant awareness that whatever one does is under God's penetrating gaze.  One cannot be satisfied with the widespread attitude that a religious person lives "more or less" along a certain path, "more or less" observes the Sabbath, "more or less" tithes his produce, and "more or less" abstains from gossip.  It is impossible to be "more or less" subservient.  Servitude entails precision.  Not for naught did the mishna in Berakhot (2:2) speak of the "yoke" of commandments and the "yoke" of God's sovereignty.




            From here we move to the third pillar:  gemilut chasadim, kind deeds.  Here, too, there are several components.  Most importantly, we must beware of taking the words of the mishna too narrowly.  The mishna is not limited to visiting the sick, accompanying the dead, and similar expressions of benevolence.  Rather, we are to consider the entire framework governing one's interactions with others. Before anything else, gemilut chasadim must be embedded in a deep feeling of respect for other human beings:  respecting people by virtue of their humanity, comprehending the full significance of being created in the image of God, and responding with all the esteem and care that follow from that notion. 


            At its root, the sense of kevod ha-beriyot, human dignity and respect for others, requires that an individual be as concerned with others as with himself.  In its practical application, it demands sensitivity and understanding that each person is a unique combination of needs and wants, complexities and aspirations; consequently, one cannot be satisfied with a general awareness of this reality, but must strive to attain an understanding of the other person's specific needs and individual nuances.  Then, of course, the personal attachment expresses itself through actual good deeds, through the readiness to deal with another's needs, be they physical or spiritual.


            This selflessness demands not only the willingness to help when one is called, but also to search actively for such opportunities.  The very possibility of simply praying for another, of offering aid or just an encouraging word - this in itself obligates, though of course it does not represent the full extent of obligation.  To be sure, there are limits to helping others, even in a personal way.  There is a natural distance between separate individuals, a distance that is utterly impossible to bridge.  Worlds cannot be connected.  But it is definitely a distance that can be minimized; a person may, and must, see himself as being existentially involved with his fellow man, if not as one unit, then at least as his neighbor. 


            All this applies not just on the individual level, but on the collective level as well.  A ben-Torah must develop a social consciousness regarding the problems of poverty, crime, inequality and all similar evils.  These problems must pain him even if they are distant from his own home, family, and environment; it should pain him that, in some corner of the world, such a reality exists.




            These are the three pillars upon which one's individual world must rest.  For our purposes, we might have been able to speak about additional pillars, such as the realm of virtues unrelated to one's dealings with other people.  One of the most serious failures of the dominant modern Western ethic is the fact that it limits the entire subject of ethics to interpersonal relations.  However, we believe that, for example, a person must subscribe to truth because it is true, and not only because there are negative social consequences to falsehood. We could also speak of other qualities such as holiness, which the Ramban discussed (Vayikra 19:1), or the forging of a balanced personality, as the Rambam presents it (Hilkhot Deot 1-2).  In the context of this discussion, we might include the realm of positive character traits under the rubric of gemilut chasadim.  This is, in any case, the Maimonidean view: in his Guide of the Perplexed (III:53), when he discusses the qualities of kindness and justice, Maimonides interprets the verse "and it shall be tzedaka for you" (Devarim 24:13) as referring to the righteousness a person performs vis-א-vis himself, towards his own soul, when he cultivates it properly.


            Next week, we shall continue with a discussion of the demands placed upon the yeshiva as a whole, and of the specific tasks of a ben-Torah.


Click here for the second part of this shiur.