“When I call out the Name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our G-d.”
Chazal learn out from this passuk the obligation of Birchas HaTorah. The Gemara in Nedarim makes a startling point about the severity of being lax in this mitzvo: It tells us that after the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdosh and the galus that followed, the Chachamim and Neviim did not know what was the cause of such a terrible punishment, until Hashem himself told them that it was because “they left My Torah.” Rav explains that this does not mean that they were not learning Torah, rather that they did not make Birchas HaTorah before they would start learning. The commentaries find a number of difficulties with this Gemara. How can the Gemara attribute such severe punishments to the relatively minor sin of not saying Birchas HaTorah? Moreover, this Gemara seems to contradict the Gemara in Yoma, which states that the first Beis HaMikdosh was destroyed because of murder, idol worship, and immorality.
The Maharal answers these problems in his explanation of this Gemara. He writes that it is impossible to understand the Gemara literally that they were not saying Birchas HaTorah, rather the Gemara means that they did not say the bracha with the proper intentions. He explains that when a person says Birchas HaTorah, he should focus on his great love and gratitude towards Hashem for giving him the tremendous gift of the Torah. The chachamim of the generation did say the bracha and moreover, did not merely say it out of rote, however they did not focus sufficiently on their love of Hashem when saying the bracha. He continues to explain how this subtle failing was the root cause of the terrible sins that led to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdosh. If a person focuses sufficiently on Hashem in the process of his learning then he merits to have tremendous siyata dishmaya that makes it much easier for him to avoid sin and even if he does falter, it enables him to do teshuva without great difficulty. Rav Hutner zt”l writes that this is what Chazal mean when they say that ‘the light of Torah returns a person to good’. However, if he does not connect to Hashem through his learning then he loses that special siyata dishmaya and if he falters he is far more likely to become trapped in a downward spiral of sin.
Based on this explanation we can resolve the contradiction between the Gemaras in Nedarim and Yoma. The Beis HaMikdosh was destroyed because of the terrible sins enumerated in Yoma .However the failure to say Birchas HaTorah with the proper attitude was the root cause that enabled the deterioration of the Jewish people to the point where they were sinning so greatly. Because they did not connect to Hashem properly they lost siyata dishmaya and consequently fell prey to the powerful temptations of the yetser hara. The Maharal offers a fascinating and somewhat surprising explanation of the reasons why a person may fail to show the proper love of Hashem in his Birchas HaTorah. He argues that it is impossible to love two entities at the same time, and consequently focusing on love of one thing will reduce the focus of the love for something else. Based on this, he writes that there are two possible ‘loves’ that one can express when saying Birchas HaTorah, love of Hashem or love of the Torah, and that it is not possible to feel love for both at the same time! When a person says this bracha he is more likely to express his love for the Torah more than his love for Hashem! He warns that, “one must be very careful that he make the blessing on the Torah with all his heart and soul.”
This explanation of the Maharal may seem to contradict the approach of Rav Chaim Volovzhin zt”l in Nefesh HaChaim. He emphasized that when one learns Torah they should not be thinking lofty thoughts about Hashem, rather they should delve as deeply as possible into the Torah that they are learning. He argued that this approach is the optimal way through which a person can become close to G-d. The Maharal’s distinction between love of Hashem and love of Torah seems to clash with the Nefesh HaChaim’s emphasis on Torah as opposed to thoughts of Hashem. However, on deeper analysis it seems that there is no disagreement; the Maharal did not say that a person should focus on his love of G-d during his learning. Rather before he begins to learn and says Birchas HaTorah, then he should be careful not to lose focus of G-d. The Nefesh HaChaim himself makes a very similar point with regard to one’s attitude before learning. He writes, “whenever one prepared himself to learn, it is proper for him to spend, at least, a small amount of time, contemplating a pure fear of G-d with a pure heart.” He even argues that at times one should take a small break during his learning in order to rekindle his yiras Hashem.
Thus, it seems that there is agreement amongst these two Gedolim that before a person learns, he must be very careful not to lose sight of whose Torah he is learning. Whist with regard to the actual time of learning, there is no reason to say that the Maharal will not agree with the Nefesh HaChaim’s approach that one should not be thinking lofty thoughts about Hashem. Perhaps, this lesson, that one should not lose focus of Hashem as he begins to learn, is also alluded to in the course of the Chagim that we are presently in. Soon after spending the month of Elul, Rosh HaShana, and Yom Kippur, on intense self-growth, aimed largely at reconnecting to Hashem, we complete the cycle of the Torah and celebrate the beauty and wonder of Torah on Simchas HaTorah. The preparation leading up to Simchas HaTorah can help us adapt the correct focus in our learning - to increase our love and fear of Hashem.