Monday, May 17, 2010


Shavuos is a time of appreciation for the Giving of the Torah; where we demonstrate our love for Torah by spending the whole night immersed in the greatest Mitzvo, that of Talmud Torah. As we approach this holy day it is instructive to make sure that we develop an accurate understanding of what the Mitzvo of Talmud Torah entails. A person may believe that by learning Torah in great depth he fulfills the Mitzvo in its entirety, however, on closer analysis it seems that there is another aspect to this Mitzvo that can be overlooked. In Sefer HaMitzvos, the Rambam defines the Mitzvo in the following way: "He commanded us to learn Torah and teach it, this is what is called Talmud Torah, as it says, 'and you shall teach it to your children'; and it is written in the Sifri, 'your children, these are students..[1]" It is evident from the Rambam that a proper kiyum of the Mitzvo of Talmud Torah involves teaching Torah as well as learning it.

There are many sources in Chazal which emphasize the importance of teaching Torah. One of the most striking is the Gemara in Sanhedrin which speaks extremely harshly about one who learns but does not teach. In Parshas Shelach the Torah, in describing one who worships idols, says that "he disgraced the word of Hashem." The Gemara ascribes this degrading description to a number of hanhagos, including learning and not teaching; "Rebbe Meir says; one who learns Torah and does not teach it is included in the category of, 'for he disgraced the word of Hashem'[2]." It is very difficult to understand why learning and not teaching can be placed in the same category as truly terrible sins such as denying that the Torah is from Hashem[3]! The Ben Ish Chai zt"l explains that the Torah is eternal and is intended to be passed on through all the generations. However, "one who learns for himself and doesn't strive to give over his learning to his fellow, damages in a mida mesuyemes, the eternal nature of the Torah.[4]" Similarly, the Maharal explains the Gemara that Kavod HaTorah is greatly enhanced when one spreads the word of Hashem to others, One who does not do so prevents Torah from being learnt by others, therefore, he disgraces the word of Hashem because through his inaction he hinders the enhancement of Kavod Hashem[5].

Other sources in Chazal indicate that teaching Torah is a fundamental part of each person's Avodas Hashem: The Gemara in Rosh Hashana 23b says that one who learns and does not teach is like a myrtle tree in the desert. The Maharal explains that the myrtle is the most pleasant smelling tree and it is in the world for people to benefit from its pleasant smell. A myrtle that is in the desert does not fulfill its purpose because no-one can benefit from it. So too, Torah is there to be taught over to others and one who does not do so cannot fulfill his purpose in life. He writes: “The main aspect of the Torah is wisdom that by its very nature is there to teach others and if it is not taught over then it is a waste, because the essence of wisdom is to be given over to everyone.”[6]

Similarly, the Mishna in Pirkei Avos states: “If you have learnt much Torah, ‘al tachzik tova’ to yourself, because that is why you were created.”[7] The simple understanding of this Mishna is that a person should not be proud of his achievements in Talmud Torah because learning Torah is his purpose in life. However, many commentaries suggest a different explanation. They explain the Mishna to mean that if a person has learnt much Torah he should not keep its goodness for himself, rather he should teach it to others - why? Because his purpose in creation is to learn and teach.”[8]

Accordingly, numerous Gedolim have instructed Bnei Torah to devote some of their time to teaching those less learned than themselves, especially in light of the spiritual churban that has engulfed Klal Yisroel for decades[9]. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l issued a ‘call to action’ to yeshiva students in 1973.[10] He cites how Moshe Rabbeinu was initially unwilling to lead the Jewish people, but that when it became clear that there was no-one else capable of the task, he undertook it with great vigour. Rav Moshe writes, “As Moshe responded to the voice of authority when it told him that he must, because there was no-one else, so too must our yeshiva students …. there are no others who are qualified for the task. Under such circumstances, Torah study must also be interrupted.”[11] He concludes that “as in charity, where one has an obligation to give a tenth of his income to the poor, so must one spend one tenth of his time working on behalf of others, bringing them close to Torah. If one is endowed with greater resources, he must correspondingly spend more of his time with others.”[12]

Many other Gedolim have issued similar ‘calls to action’. In Eretz Yisroel, Rav Wolbe zt”l exhorted avreichim to devote one night every week to visit the homes of secular families and show them the beauty of Torah and Yiddishkeit. Our present-day Gedolim are not the first to instruct benay Torah to devote some time to helping the ruchnius of other Jews. The Chofetz Chaim zt“l[13] and the Alter of Novardok zt”l[14] wrote extensively on these matters, using very strong language to stress the urgency of the situation and the need for significant contributions of time and effort.

Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l demanded that yeshiva bochrim commit to at least two weeks in the course of the year to helping save the Sefardic Jews from the attempts of the Zionists to secularize them. He promised them that their own learning would not be harmed as a consequence. “It was impossible that those who devoted themselves to the Torah learning of others would lose their own as a consequence.”[15] One may think that it is improper or unnecessary for learned people to teach beginners - perhaps those who are less learned should do this whilst the more advanced should focus on their own learning or high level teaching. The Chazon Ish was once asked such a question: was it appropriate for talmidei chachamim to teach basically unlearned Jews Chumash and Mishna. He replied that it was not only permissible but an obligation of ‘learning for the purpose of teaching.” As a consequence of this psak many distinguished kollel scholars would travel to different settlements in Israel to teach secularized Sefardic Jews.

There are many ways in which a person can share his Torah with others; he (or she) can strive to develop chavrusas (study partners) with people on a lower level of learning. There are numerous outreach organizations[16], Yeshivas, shuls etc who are in need of people to take out a short time from their schedule in order to teach those less learned than themselves. A mere phone call to one of these organizations may be all the effort necessary to find a suitable chavrusa. Moreover, one need not restrict himself to teaching people face to face; with the added technology available now, one can easily learn with someone in another country on the phone or other mediums. Furthermore, the written medium is another effective way of teaching many people at the same time by writing a short Dvar Torah on the Parsha or some other topic. It is also important to note that teaching Torah need not be limited to formal settings - there are countless opportunities to share Torah wisdom with others in one's daily interactions in life, whether it be with colleagues at work, with the taxi driver, or with friends.

Another aspect of this lesson is the importance of passing on to our children the correct attitude to Torah learning. Rav Wolbe zt”l expressed his views on educating our children in their attitude to learning Torah. “I think that we must teach this to youngsters already from the time that they enter into yeshiva katana. Immediately in the first year, we must say to them that they are intrinsically connected to Klal Yisroel, and that they are obligated to give over to Klal Yisroel all the Torah that they will learn in yeshiva katana and yeshiva gedola. This is their avoda - not just to think about themselves. One must know that he must give over his Torah to Klal Yisroel.’[17] It is clear that Rav Wolbe believed that approaching our learning with a recognition that we must also teach is not just a maaleh, rather it is a prerequisite to our relationship with Torah.
As we approach Zman Matan Toraseinu, it is worthwhile to remember that Hashem does not simply want us to learn Torah for ourselves, rather He wants Torah to be learned by everyone. May we arrive at the day when every Jew l
[1] Sefer HaMitzvos, Mitzvo 11. Aslo see Ramban in Hilchos Talmud Torah, First Perek where he defines Talmud Torah in a similar fashion.
[2] Sanhedrin, 99a.
[3] See the Gemara for the other sins included in this derogatory passuk.
[4] Binyahu, Sanhedrin, 99a.
[5] In Jewish thought, passivity from doing good is considered doing bad.
[6] Maharal: Chiddushei Aggados 23b. Also see Nesiv Torah Ch.8 for a lengthier discussion of this inyan.
[7] Avos, 2:9.
[8] Avos, 2:9: Medrash Shmuel. See Medrash David, Lev Eliyahu, Parshas Tazria-Metzora for an identical explanation. It was also heard from R.Zev Leff Shlita in the name of the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l.
[9] We all have a vague, intellectual awareness that things are not as they should be but how bad is it? The intermarriage rate in USA in 1950 was 6%, by 1990 it was 52% and rising. 2 million Jews of Jewish origin do not identify themselves as Jews. 2 million self-identified Jews have no Jewish connection whatsoever. For every wedding between two Jews, two intermarriages take place. 625,000 US Jews are now practicing other religions. 11% of US Jews go to shul#. Every day dozens of intermarriages take place which means that in the time it took you to read this, some Jews were lost forever. These statistics make the situation a little more real to us but it is still far from our hearts.
[10] Jewish Observer June 1973, quoted in ‘The Eye of a Needle’, p.227-233
[11] ibid. p.230
[12] ibid. p.232. Also see Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer, 4th Chelek, Simun 26 where he paskens that a Talmid Chacham must give over one tenth of his time to teaching.
[13] Chizuk Hadas and Chomas Hadas are fully devoted to this topic.
[14] Madreigos Haodom, maamer ‘Mezakeh harabim’.
[15] Direct quote from the Artscroll biography of Rav Dessler, p.327.
[16] Such as Lev L'Achim, Arachim and Acheinu, all who are in desperate need for Bnei Torah to give a small portion of their time to help save secular Jews. (If anyone is interested in looking into these avenues, speak to me and I'll try to give you possible contacts).
[17] Parsha Shiur: Parshas Bereishis.

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