As human beings, we are confronted by conflicting and opposing norms and contrasting values. We were created from all parts of the earth, we are curious and interested in universal issues and have an interest in knowing things which are close and far away from us. We are created with a mind and an intellect which is expansive. These are important as they ensure we are part of the world and we are not secluded off the map, and they compliment our college and working lives, yet we must make an effort to be rooted and committed to Torah. Shammai tells us (Avot 1:15) – עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע, make your Torah permanent. Torah needs to be accessible and the essence to what we are about. In a changing world, there is one constant in our lives which is Torah.
When returning from a gap year in Israel, this notion becomes more tangible, and one of the most common misconceptions is that we cannot access Torah in the same way. The question arises – how am I supposed to keep up with my learning when I’m in college or working? How am I supposed to make time and be as committed when I am not in the same environment? Rambam and Rashi provide two fundamental interpretations of the mishna (Avot 1:15) which are fundamental to this notion of how we are supposed to take the midrasha/yeshiva experience with us, post-gap year.
Rashi’s point has two parts. He initiates by saying that you should not set aside times for Torah, but rather you should make it permanent all day. This means not putting Torah in a box nor limiting it, but rather making it there all the time. That is ultimately the midrasha/yeshiva experience, where you are learning and immersing yourself in Torah all day and you have access to your rabbeim and teachers all day. This is awesome, and something we aspire to do, but life moves on after midrasha and yeshiva, and the goal is to find a way to make the Torah permanent in that it compliments our new every day routine. Additionally, Rambam’s understanding is that we must make Talmud Torah primary, and all our other activities secondary. This connects to Rashi’s first point, in that we make Torah at the centre of everything and we don’t limit it. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z’l, using Rambam’s interpretation, notes that we should not set aside times for Torah like tennis. Talmud Torah is not a hobby, like a sport. Rather, Talmud Torah is a spirit. Even if we cannot learn all day, we wish we could. We thrive for that.
Rashi has a second point, where he changes the tone from Torah being permanent all day, there all the time, to something that we set ourselves time for every day; as he says, about four or five chapters every day. This is completely opposite to his first point. We have that desire and thirst for learning as we move on from midrasha/yeshiva to college or work, but we have to translate it into practical terms. We must make a certain commitment, which follows a practical framework. Ultimately, we cannot live in the clouds. Such ways of reinforcing this mode are through initiatives that follow the “yomi”. Whether it’s daf yomi, nach yomi, mishna yomi, Rambam yomi, or a chapter of a sefer each day with a chavruta or by yourself. Learning on Shabbat. A shiur on the bus. Shnayim Mikra is a good one too. These are there to compliment our every day routines and schedules. Rashi’s second point is where we should be heading for, and is the most idealistic for life post-gap year.
In the fourth chapter of “By His Light”, Rav Lichtenstein discusses the notion of making a living and Talmud Torah. How do we make Torah permanent through our every day lives, if we are to make a living? Do our jobs and our college education give us time to learn? Is this something subjective? The gemara (Bava Batra 7b) tells us that talmidei chakhamim are exempt from paying taxes towards the defence of the city they are located in. The Rosh (1:26) comments on this sugya, noting that a talmidei chakham is a person whose Torah is his occupation. Is this someone whose profession is Torah, like a teacher or a rabbi? Is this someone whose entire life is dedicated to Torah? But is this not all of us in a sense that we try to make Torah primary? The Rosh notes that this applies even if a person spends his day at work and makes a living. At any free moment, we want to learn and even at the most minimum, Torah is an immovable force and the axis on which our life spins. Even if we have lectures from 9 in the morning until 7 in the evening with only one hour for a chavruta, and even if we work full time from 9 to 5 with commute in between which is dedicated to listening to a shiur, that is complimentary to our lives. That is making it central to our lives as it affects our mentality, spirit and time.
Interestingly, Rav Yehuda Amital, in the third chapter of Jewish Values in a Changing World, comments on this particular notion of combining intellectual professions with Torah study. Rav Amital highlights what we have explored regarding the importance of continuing with in-depth Torah study once leaving the Bet Midrash, but makes a contrasting point to how we have dissected Rashi’s second point. Rav Amital says that “in a world where so much importance is attached to the intellect, a person cannot possibly fulfil his obligation by learning Daf Yomi, or the like, which does not require great intellectual effort”. Is the “yomi” style of learning then there to fill in the gap and not actually promote an intellectual, deep and fulfilling Talmud Torah experience? How is it then that we can do more? Should we be doing more? Rav Amital makes a superb point, in that service of God should be about using the brain and the intellect. Building a shul with our hands, blowing shofar with the mouth, smelling b’samim with the nose and numerous other religious practises don’t use the brain in the same way learning Torah does. Rav Amital claims it is impossible to live a serious religious life without deep Torah learning. It is what allows us to serve God and comprehend God’s wisdom.
I agree with Rav Amital in the sense that Torah study is an intellectual pursuit and it is an experience where one takes God with him. I also agree in that there is more than learning through the “yomi” initiatives and we must seek to find as much time as we can to learn more. Yet, the most important thing is to be practical and there is a way to combine. It’s important though to combine in a way that the Torah is spirit, mentality and time. We can find God’s wisdom through our daily study of Torah, but as Rav Soloveitchik tells us in Halakhic Man, we can find God’s wisdom through theoretical physics and science, and the universe He created. We can find God’s wisdom and learn in ways that are practical to our lives.
An additional aspect to our topic here is location. Rav Lichtenstein adds another point, quoting the midrash (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 13:2), where the beraita says if you hear something from a scholar in the Bet Midrash, take those words in a manner that is keva. This is not about how much or how important learning is, rather it is making what we hear keva. The beraita quotes Ezra (Ezra 7:10) who learnt, taught and helped people do mitzvot even during a time of churban. Ezra ensured that no matter where he was, there was Torah. It’s the same for any individual who finishes their gap year in Israel. Despite the fact you leave Israel and are no longer in the walls of the Bet Midrash, no longer in close proximity to the centre of the universe and learning in the holiest place in the world, we can still make our Torah keva. Whether you are in Herzliya, Teaneck, Toronto or London, wherever you are, the Torah still remains part of your life and what we hear in the Bet Midrash should be transformative and come with us. Even in a different place, with a different routine/schedule, we can make the Torah keva and it shouldn’t be a challenge at all.
The verse tells us, וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֞וּ אֶת־ק֨וֹל יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהִ֛ים מִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ בַּגָּ֖ן לְר֣וּחַ הַיּ֑וֹם וַיִּתְחַבֵּ֨א הָֽאָדָ֜ם וְאִשְׁתּ֗וֹ מִפְּנֵי֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים בְּת֖וֹךְ עֵ֥ץ הַגָּֽן – and they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day: and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden (Bereishit 3:8). Rashi comments that once making the mistake of eating from the wrong tree, both Adam and Chava heard the sound of God. They were ashamed of themselves to be in the presence of God and there was a significant transformation that happened when this mistake was made. God became different and their lives were of subjective morality. The question arises from this: how can we interact with God depending on the day and how we feel? How can we interact with God depending on our surroundings? This mistake led to there being no clear understanding of right from wrong. We cannot just think that one day we can put our all into our avodat Hashem and learning, and one day we can’t. That is a dangerous notion.
Ultimately, Torah is an anchor which is constant and the same. It won’t change no matter what happens in the world, and no matter what circumstances we experience. Whether we move from a Bet Midrash in Jerusalem to a college dorm in Manhattan, or an office in London. Whether we move from studying gemara for 10 hours a day with a rebbe to an hour chavruta, or a daf yomi shiur on commute, it is still there and it can be there. When we say Birkat HaTorah, we say נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה – God continues to give us the gift of Torah every day and it is something we must continue to appreciate always. Har Sinai is a constant which we experience every day of our lives, whether it’s in the Bet Midrash, or in the office, or on the bus, or in a different place to where we may have studied on our gap year. Torah is an intimate part of our lives that is there even if we are placed in a different setting, and even if we are at a different trajectory in our lives to where we might have connected previously.
I urge everyone to seek this important reality and take up every opportunity to make Torah keva whatever you might be doing in your life.