Parsha Mitzvot-Vaetchanan-Mitzvah 416 – Concept 22 – Talmud Torah Part One
Transcribed & unedited: Listen to the Rambam, “in the same way that a person is obligated to teach his son Torah, so is the person obligated to teach a grandchild Torah. And not only a child or a grandchild, but there is a mitzvah on every Jew who has learning to teach everyone who is willing and able to learn Torah. Your person is obligated to hire a teacher to teach his children Torah. One whose father did not teach him Torah is obligated to teach himself Torah,” it doesn’t say “to learn Torah.” It says, “to teach himself Torah.” Obviously, the stress in the Rambam at the beginning is on teaching. What does that tell you? Why would it start from spreading the word before learning Torah? You do have to learn it to spread it, but here, let’s say, even when you’re learning it for yourself, it’s not called learning yourself; it’s called teaching yourself. Sure you can say, in the simple level, when do you know something the best? When you can teach it! So that’s what the Mishna in Avot says, that “I’ve learned a lot from my teachers, I’ve learned even more from my chavruta,” my study partner, “and I’ve learned the most from my students, by the interaction with my students.”
You know that in the yeshiva, during the time of the Gemara, the way they would sit was in rows. So, the best students would sit in the front row, and then, depending on how good you were, actually on how well you asked questions, how good your questions were, was where you would sit. So the teacher would teach the class, everyone would hear it, would be actually translated for everyone, then everyone in the first row would stand up, would repeat the lecture to the row sitting in the other row, the people in the third row heard it from the teacher, the first row, and the second row, and they also had a chance to teach it to the people all behind them. So the weaker students heard it taught over numerous times, numerous different ways, so that you could always hone in on someone who has your approach, or who can speak to you better than someone else, and everyone had the opportunity to teach, except the people who sat in the last row. So part of the stress was, part of the reason that so much is put on teaching is when you learn, you have to be aware of the fact that you’re not simply learning to learn, and you’re not simply learning to observe. You’re learning to teach!
So the first step in Torah is to understand that you’re part of the transmission of Torah from Sinai to all future generations. Not the learning to observe, not the learning to be commenced, not the learning for anything, the first step in the study of Torah is to understand that you’re a link in this process, and the mesorah from one generation to the next. It’s an incredible idea, because unless a person is fully aware of being part of the process, so then the person cannot fully appreciate the Torah that the person is learning. So if I hear some nice information, that’s fine; but the minute I hear that the information that I’m receiving is information that connects me back to Sinai, and that I am the link in making sure that this connection is gonna go to my children, and my children’s children, and my students, and my students’ students, or any time I hear a piece of wisdom, I have to hear it from the perspective of teaching it. Which is what the Mishna in Avot says, that any time you hear something, a good idea, you have to go and say it over to someone, immediately. If you hear a new idea, a new insight, something that’s meaningful, powerful, moving, say it over to someone else, share it! Because that way you’re always aware of the fact that whatever you learn connects you back all the way to the past and all the way into the future.
That’s why, in this gorgeous thing by Rav Soloveichik, where he describes how in his older years, when he would walk into a classroom, he hated it. He said, “I would walk in, I’m eighty years old, I’m at the end of my life, I’m looking at life from one perspective, and I walk into a classroom of kids, and they’re eighteen, nineteen, in their twenties, their faces are bright and filled with hope, they’re looking forward to the rest of their lives, and I’m at the end of my life; I have nothing in common with them! They’re interested in sports, I’m not; they’re interested in girls, I’m not; they’re interested in this, I’m not; I’m interested in Nietzsche, they don’t know who he is; I’m interested in Kiergegarde, they think he lived in the same time as Moses; there’s no connection between our two worlds. But what can I do, this is my job? I’m paid to do it. So, I sit down, I open up the Gemara, and in just a few minutes, out come Rebbe Akiva, Rebbe Yishmael, and they pull out their chairs and they sit right next to me, and my students, instead of talking to me, they begin to talk to Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Yishmael, and they start arguing with them. And sometimes I have to rap them on their fingers and say, ‘listen, when you speak to someone like Rebbe Akiva, you don’t speak in that tone of voice, or you don’t say it that way.’ And sometimes, I have to calm them down. And once in a while, they come up with an argument against Rebbe Akiva, or Rebbe Yishmael, and they’re have having trouble explaining their answer, and out runss Rashi, and Rashi pulls up a chair and says, ‘listen, listen, listen, let me explain it to you.’ So Rashi comes from a thousand years a go, and he begins to explain it to them, and then someone else runs into the room, and it’s Rashi’s son in law, Rabeinu Tam, and he pulls up a chair and he starts arguing with Rashi, and the students hear Rabeinu Tam arguing with Rashi, about Rebbe Akiva, so they think they can get involved in this argument and they get involved, and I’m involved, and they’re involved, and then people, Rabbi Akiva Eiger comes from the eighteenth century, and then the Vilna Gaon comes from the eighteenth century, and this one comes from the nineteenth century, and this one comes from the twentieth century, and we’re sitting there, we’re arguing back and forth two thousand years of people are sitting there and arguing with each other and the class is over, and I close my book, and I’m eighteen years old and so are they.”
That’s what it’s supposed to be when we learn. What we have to understand is that when we learn, it’s not simply that we’re learning in our generation, Rebbe Akiva is speaking to us, and every time we learn Humash, it has to be with the awareness that God is speaking to us, and the only way to be aware of that is to understand that the first and primary reason to learn Torah is to teach it. The first and primary reasom to acquire reason and insights and good ideas and new ideas, whether they are religious, Torah or not, is to share it with other people, and to understand them well enough when we first hear them to make sure that we can say them over to other people. Think about all the tremendous ideas we have heard in our lives that we have forgotten. I can’t begin to tell you every time I sit…it happened to me today. When I was preparing about what to say about widows or orphans, I remember having a two-hour discussion with my grandfather about it. A two-hour discussion, which was one of the most exciting of my life, because I argued with him, and my father came in, and he was on my side, not my grandfather’s, and I can’t remember a word that I said or a word that he said. It’s tragic! It’s terrible! So often we hear something and we just let it flit away, but if we remember that the primary reason for learning Torah is to teach it, then we don’t forget it. You know, just picture that, if you remember about twelve years ago, we sent a satellite with recordings of music and computer messages to Alpha Centauri, which we believe is the galaxy, the closest galaxy with the potential for human life, right/ we believe that it will not reach them for a minimum of a thousand years. It can’t, because of the distance. That means, when the message is received, if it is received, will be receive a thousand years from now, and basically the question on this computerized message is “Are you there?” So, they will answer us, and send us back a message, so it will be two thousand years before we hear, “Yes, how are you?” But we call that a conversation. Every time we open up a humash, we’re having the same kind of conversation with God. Two thousand, thirty five hundred years ago, God spoke, and sometimes, when I open up a humash, I may hear something that God said that no one has heard before, and it happens with every single one of us. And that’s the…you gotta hear it when learning Torah, that the important thing is to teach.
Another idea. There are two different obligations in the mitzvah of learning Torah. one is the mitzvah to be constantly involved in the study of Torah, and making sure that one studies Torah every single day. And the other is a mitzvah to know all of Torah. you must know all of the Bible, meaning Tanach: Torah, Neviim, Cetuvim; you must read it through once, and you must read through the entire Oral Law once. You must, that is an obligation. You have to know everything, you have to read through Tanach, it’s a great book; it has violence, sex; anything you have on TV, it has better there. More mystery, too. You have people who argue with god, you have hypocrisy, you have heresy, you have everything you want found on television, but you find in much more character, and it’s religious, so you can’t feel guilty about wasting time. You find it all there in the Bible, and you certainly find it in halachas, spelled out all the time. Read through the Rambam, or read through Mishna. One time over a lifetime, one time over a lifetime, read through the entire bible. It’s frightening to know how many Jews there are who have never read through the Bible, let alone the Oral Law. You ever meet a Jew for Jesus? Knows Tanach by heart, right? Can quote you, chapter and verse, “do you know what it says in Isaiah fifty three, verse twenty six?” “Nope, I can’t say I do.” But they do. We don’t know Bible like that, but that’s not even what the halacha is. The halacha is, read it through one time.
A – In our time, there’s no question that it does.
Q – So, we’re talking about where there’s five books that we have, that we read.
A – Yeah, I’m talking about all of Tanach, Prophets and the Writings as well. And all of Rambam, or all of Mishna, or, even better, all of Shulchan Aruch. Well, all of Shulchan Aruch wouldn’t do anything, really, because it doesn’t have all the Oral Law. Now, the other mitzvah is to be involved in the learning of Torah all the time. One of the greatest stories I’ve ever heard was, when Prima Levi, so he was a writer about the Holocaust, so, in his book, The Drowned and the Safe, tells a story of how, about three years after he returned back to Italy, he was sent to Germany as the representative for Bayer Aspirin Company. Then, they were going to open a plant in Germany. So, they had a very productive meeting and everyone was very nervous around him, all the German representatives, because, at one point in the meeting, he went like this, you know, and the numbers showed from Auschwitz. So, they were very sensitive to him, and he saw they were going out of their way to be nice to him, so he felt he would go out of his way to be nice to them, so when the time came for the meeting to end, he said to them, “Eit häm vir aup,” which he thought was German for “Goodbye.” So they said, “Did we say anything wrong? What did we do?” He said, “what do you mean? I said goodbye!” they said, “No, you didn’t say goodbye, you said, ‘I’ll see you in Hell!’” He said, “That’s the German I learned for ‘Goodbye!’” They said, “Where did you ever learn German like that?” He said, “that s the way we say ‘Goodbye’ to each other every morning in Auschwitz.” Where you learn how to speak really determines your vocabulary. It’s called schprach gafuele, that there are certain things that can be expressed only in certain languages. Yiddish, there are certain Yiddish idioms that can never be translated into English, right? “nisch tan yi nisch ta herr,” “you’re hocking my chineg,” you’re hitting my coffeepot? It doesn’t sound right. But, you say “hocking my chineg,” everybody knows what you mean. “Mehein bis morgin,” sounds better in Yiddish. That’s schprach gafuele. All the languages have it. Towards the point of being involved in Torah day and night, one of the points is schprach gafuele. You learn how to think as a Jew and how to respond to life as a Jew. So much of what we do is responding to life not as Jews, as Americans, or as products of Western civilization, even South Americans. But as products of western civilization, rather than thinking and responding as Jews.