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Blog - Torah Insights

Teach the Child

Teach the Child

When we think about Torah scholarship we think of a vast library of Jewish books. We think of the great Jewish sages; we think of Moses, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, Rashi, Maimonides, and the list goes on and on. When we think of scholarship,we do not usually think of a young boy or girl in the first grade reading the first verse of Genesis, or the first line of the Mishnah. Yet, the commandment to study the Torah is derived[1] from the verse in the Shemah ”You shall teach them thoroughly to your children”[2], (repeated in this week's Parsha “You shall teach them to your children”[3]).

Why is the commandment that the scholar study Torah derived from the commandment to teach a child? Isn't the child’s learning only a necessary first step in the process of intellectual enlightenment? Isn't the adult’s wisdom the key to true learning? Why is the Child’s learning the source of the scholar's commandment? The Torah must be telling us that there is something unique in a child’s learning that the adult must aspire to. We must therefore say that quintessential learning is the domain of a child.  

In the Ethics of our Fathers[4], Elisha Ben Avuyah teaches:

One who learns Torah in his childhood, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on fresh paper. One who learns Torah in his old age, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on erased paper."

The first half of the statement, praising the study of Torah in childhood, is understood. We want to encourage young people to learn while their mind is still fresh and impressionable; yet the second half of the statement is perplexing. Why would we disparage the adult learner? Do we not remember that Rabbi Akiva, one of the all time greatest Torah scholars, began to study Torah at age forty? If Rabbi Akiva would have learnt about the "ink written on erased paper" would he not have been discouraged from learning - and one of the  greatest minds would have been lost to the Jewish people?

The answer is as simple as it is profound:

The Mishnah is not telling us to learn when we are a child; but rather the Mishnah is telling us to learn like a child[5]. Not to avoid learning in old age, but rather to avoid learning with the attitude of an adult. Often, the adult feels that he has seen it all. Often, he feels wise, full of knowledge, and in possession of the answers to all the big questions. A new idea cannot enter his mind unless it can squeeze through his existing knowledge. His mind is not interested in revolutions, it is interested in ideas that confirm his perspective and conform to his existing point of view.

The child, on the other hand, is curious, open to new insights, and intrigued by the mysteries of the universe. The child recognizes that the there is much he or she does not understand. The child harbors no illusion that he understands all there is to know. The child approaches learning with a thirst for ideas that will revolutionize his perspective and dramatically expand his intellectual horizons.

The Mitzvah to study Torah is derived from the words “teach them thoroughly to your children”, because to grasp the infinite Divine wisdom that is in the Torah one must cultivate the attitude of a child. One must understand that no matter how wise he is, he is merely a child compared to the infinity of the Torah’s wisdom. 

The word for wisdom in Hebrew is "Chochmah", which is comprised of two words "koach" and "Mah" - the "power" of "what". Every intellectual and scientific breakthrough in history came about because someone possessed the strength of character, the "power", to ask "what". While the "experts" of the conventional wisdom were sure they understood all there was to know about the topic, there was a person with wisdom, with humility, with a child-like desire to question and learn, with a child-like openness to the mysteries of the universe. The breakthrough was possible only because somewhere someone retained the child's intrigue.

So when your mother told you to "always remain a child", she was articulating the Mishnah's point of view. She wasn't telling you to keep playing in the sandbox, she was saying: "you may have a PHD at the end of your name, but next time you pick up a book, do so with an open mind".

No need to worry, we’ll have plenty of time to evaluate and assess at a later point, but at the moment we must be humble, we must be curious, we must be open.

We must learn like a child.[6]

 


[1] See Rambam’s Book of Commandments, positive mItzvah number 11. 

[2] Deuteronomy 6:7.

[3] Ibid. 11:19.

[4] Ethics of our Fathers, 4:20.

[5] The literal translation of the Mishnah is “(“Halomed”) one who learns Torah (“Yeled”) child, this can mean: one who learns Torah in Childhood, the deeper meaning, however, is: one who learns Torah like a child.   

[6] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos, Vaeschanan Vol. 19 Sicha 1. 

Learning from the Day

Learning from the Day

It’s a beautiful summer day. The August sun is shining, the pleasant summer breeze is blowing and the waters of the Long Island Sound beckon. My good friend says to me: “perhaps I don't have to read the weekly Torah portion so carefully this week. After all, in this part of Deuteronomy the biblical plot does not advance significantly, the story does not take any unexpected turns, there are no major historical events that take place, no earth shattering miracles, and as far as I can tell, no significant character development occurring in this part of the story”. “Perhaps”, my friend continues, “I’ll tune out for a week, and when I return the Jews will still be at the same spot: at the bank of the Jordan River, opposite the city of Jericho listening to Moses speaking to them.”

“You must be kidding” I say. Yes, perhaps, the plot does not twist and turn, but this week’s portion touches upon Judaism's deepest philosophical truths. Studying this portion gives us the understanding and the tools to face some of life’s most challenging philosophical and emotional questions. Listening to the Torah portion this week gives us the ability to thrive not only on a beautiful summer day, but also in the figurative, cold, cloudy, bitter, winters of our life. 

The big question, one that every person encounters at some point in their life, is: what is the nature of darkness? How are we to view the darkness in the world around us? How do we explain the challenges, the pain, the loneliness that we sometimes see in the world and how do we think about the darkness that, to one degree or another, lies within ourselves?

Some philosophies[1] offer an easy answer. They argue that G-d is the source of all good, that any and all good in the world should be attributed to Him alone. The darkness, however, has nothing to do with G-d. All darkness, all tragedy, all pain, has a different source, some call it Satan, but you can call it whatever you want, the important thing, they argue, is that darkness does not come from the G-d who is the source of all good, and who is the source of nothing but good.  

Their answer, however, does not work for us Jews. One of the most important principles, if not the most important principle, is that G-d is one. In this week’s portion, in what is one of the most famous verses in the Torah, one that we are commanded to read twice every day, the Torah states:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.[2]

“The Lord is one” means that there are no two sources of power, one the source of goodness and one the source of darkness and evil. If that were the case there would be, heaven forbid, two Lords. “The Lord is one” means that there is only one source of power in the universe. One source that is responsible for both the good and the bad, both the light as well as the darkness.  

On the first day of creation the Torah states “And it was evening and it was morning day one”. The Torah does not say “first day”, which is linguistically consistent with the subsequent days of creation where the Torah writes “second day” “third day” etc., instead the Torah writes “day one”. Chasidic Philosophy teaches[2] that the expression “one day” captures a profound truth: the twenty four hour cycle that is “day one” is not complete unless it contains evening and morning, both darkness and light. Both parts of the day, unite to become “day one”. Or, to put it in other words, it is not a complete ”day” unless it transforms both darkness and light into “one” entity.

Right there, on the very first page of the Torah, on the very first day of creation, the Torah alludes to the purpose of darkness on earth. The Torah tells us that the darkness within ourselves, the evil inclination of our animal soul, was placed in our hearts in order to be transformed to light. The darkness in the world was created so humanity could dispel it and move from “evening” to “morning”.

In the words of Moses:

And you shall know this day and consider it in your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above, and upon the earth below; there is none else.[4]

“This day”: just as the darkness and light are two sides of the same day, so too “know” that the “Lord”, the Divine power of expression, the source of light, and “G-d”: the Divine power to conceal, the source of darkness, are all one. “The Lord is G-d” the power of revelation and power of concealment are both one and the same. They come from the same G-d, and they are here to serve the same purpose: both express the oneness of G-d. 

The same is true about the world within man.

The deepest relationship comes, not from the absence of challenges but rather from overcoming them. The deepest connection to G-d comes from being confronted by the power, the passion and drive of the evil inclination, and by channeling it to the love of G-d and to the spreading of light.

 


 

[1] See Kli Yakar beginning of Parshas Yisro. 

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4.

[3] See for example “Veyadatah Hayom” 5678.

[4] Deuteronomy 4:39. 

Moses The Translator

Moses The Translator

Why him? Why could he not have found someone else to translate the manuscript? 

The fifth book of the five books of Moses, describes the last thirty seven days of Moses’ life. In the fifth book Moses repeats many of the laws of the Torah, he rebukes the people and retells some of major events of the previous forty years.

In addition to all that, Moses also took on a new role: until this point Moses was the conveyer of the Torah, communicating the Divine wisdom to the Jewish people, at this point Moses became the first translator of the Torah, as the verse states:

On that side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses commenced and explained this Torah, saying.[1]

Quoting the words “explained this Torah” Rashi says:

He explained it to them in seventy languages.[2]

Why would Moses decide to involve himself in the translation? His audience, the children of Israel about to enter the Promised Land, all spoke Hebrew and had no practical use for a translation of the Torah in Egyptian, Babylonian or Chinese. Why would Moses spend the last days of his life translating the Torah, instead of delegating the task to other people? Centuries later, as the Jews scattered to every corner of the planet and began to speak all languages, the translation of the Torah would become an important priority, but why would it not suffice for the great scholars of subsequent generations to translate the Torah? Why did Moses himself have to dedicate the last days of his life to the translation?   

Language captures culture. Each language captures a unique perspective, a distinctive way of understanding the world. Each language represents a particular point of view based on the culture of the people speaking that language. That is why translation is a tricky business. It’s not enough to translate the word, the translator needs to convey an idea, a phenomenon, that is unique to one culture.

Moses, therefore, understood that translating the Torah was not just a pragmatic need that could be left to the future generations. He understood that the translation was essential to the purpose of Torah. The Torah, G-d’s infinite will and wisdom, is relevant not just in Hebrew and not just to the people living in ancient Israel who were dealing with the challenges and environment of their specific times. The Torah is the ultimate truth, it is therefore applicable to all places, to all times, to all cultures, and it therefore can, and must, be translated into all languages.[3]

There is also a deep mystical meaning in translating the Torah into seventy languages. The central idea of the Torah is oneness. The goal of the Torah is to unite all people with the one G-d. The seventy languages, by contrast, are the source of division between people. In the beginning of time, the Torah teaches, all people spoke one language, which led them to experience a deep sense of unity. They tried to preserve the unity by constructing the Tower of Babel. G-d, however, decided to disrupt their unity by confusing their language, thus forcing them to scatter across the earth.[4] The seventy languages, then, represent the division between people, while the Torah seeks to unite the people with each other, and all people with the unity of the creator. The act of translating the Torah, therefore, is an awesome spiritual undertaking. An undertaking so radical it had to be spearheaded by Moses himself. The act of translation is the bridge which brings the unity of G-d into the diversity of existence. It is the thread that transforms diversity into harmony.[5]

As we read about the last precious days of Moses’s life, we take this message to heart. We hear about Moses translating the Torah and we understand that, yes, the message of the Torah is as true in ancient Hebrew as it is in modern English. We remind ourselves that we too must be translators of the Torah carrying on the task of connecting the plurality of existence with the oneness of G-d, and revealing that the incredible diversity of the universe is an expression of the one G-d.    

 


[1] Deuteronomy 1:5.

[2] Rashi Deuteronomy 1:5.

[3] Maayanah Shel Torah.

[4]As stated in Genesis (11:7-9): “Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion." And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore, He named it Babel, for there the Lord confused the language of the entire earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the entire earth”.

[5] See Toras Menachem Vol. 32 p. 388. 

On the Road with a Headache

On the Road with a Headache 

Finally.

After a forty year journey, the Jewish people reached their destination. The 400 year old Divine promise to Abraham, that his descendants would be redeemed from exile and return home to Israel, was about to be fulfilled. 

In the final portion of the fourth book of the Torah, the Jewish people are in the plains of Moab, at the bank of the Jordan River, opposite the city of Jericho, ready to cross into the Land. Yet the Torah turns to the past. The portion begins with Moses writing and recounting the names of all 42 steps of the journey. Why does the Torah, whose every word and every letter holds meaning, choose to recount all 42 stops in the journey?

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, offers an analogy:

Why were these journeys recorded?... Rabbi Tanchuma expounds it in another way. It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache etc.”[1]

The recounting of the 42 step journey, then, is similar to a father who traveled with his son to a distant place in order to heal his son. On their way home, the father recounted all the places and occurrences they experienced earlier on the journey.

The problem, however, is that the story of the Jews in the desert is different than the father-son parable. In the parable the father and son are returning to their original place. On the way back they are, once again, in the same places where they experienced the earlier events, thus it is reasonable to recount the events that happened at those precise places. The Jews in the desert, by contrast, were not returning, they were heading farther and farther away from Egypt, and they had no plans of returning. Why then does the Torah focus on the past, the retelling of the journeys, instead of focusing on the future - the land of Israel that they were about to cross into?  

Life is a journey.

Each of us must travel through the wilderness, experiencing many trials and tribulations to achieve our goals and reach our destination. The journey we call life is by no means straightforward. While there are moments, “stops on the journey”, of deep meaning, great achievement, and extraordinary joy, there are also difficult stops on the journey. We sometimes find ourselves going in circles, taking detours, experiencing spiritual “headaches”. We sometimes feel cold, alone, abandoned, and sometimes we just feel that our inner strength and vitality, that our values and convictions, are asleep.

The journey is tedious, yet, we must remember that like the Jews on their journey toward Israel, eventually we will reach our destination, eventually G-d will help us overcome the challenges and reach our promised land.

While on the journey, we must keep focused on the future, always striving to move one step forward. We don’t always have the luxury to dwell on the challenging experiences. Yet, when we overcome the challenge, when we reach our goal, we must do what the father did. We must figuratively “return” to the past difficult and painful experiences. Once we are ”healed” we reach a deeper realization: that all the stops of the journey are indeed part of the healing. As Rashi puts it: “he took him to a far away place to have him healed”. Every step of the road, the cold, the headache, the complaining, was necessary in order to transform the child into a wholesome person.

The name of the Rabbi who taught the father-son parable was Rabbi Tanchuma, whose name comes from the Hebrew word, Nechama, for comfort. Rabbi Tanchuma teaches us that no matter what stage of the journey we are on, no matter how challenging the road ahead, we should be comforted. Because we must know that (1): eventually, “on the way back”, after we conclude the journey, we will discover that every step of the journey was indeed part of the healing. And (2): we will discover that although it is not always obvious, our king, our father, is with us on the journey“.[2]

 


[1] Rashi, Numbers 33:1.

[2] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Volume 18, Masey Sicha 1.  

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