As we approach the sublime and holy day of Shavuos, it is worthwhile to settle on some goals for the Yom Tov. As we know, the Arizal, the Ramchal and other mekubalim taught us that each Yom Tov is a re-enactment of the first time the event happened. For this reason, according to many seforim, we are up all night. For various reasons, we overslept, which was a bad error. But since we are given an annual opportunity to rectify the moment, we learn through the night. Following this pattern, we must analyze how to receive the Torah this year. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Parshas Ki Savo) famously teaches that if people understood and actually felt the sweetness of the Torah, they would literally go crazy, with an absolutely exclusive devotion. Nothing else in the world would matter. That is a true Kabbolas HaTorah.
Shlomo Hamelech taught us this in his famous decision to ask for wisdom instead of fabulous wealth or anything else. Of course we know that Shlomo asked for greatness in Torah, but Rav Pinchos Erlanger asks a valid question. Wouldn’t any gadol b’Yisroel do the same? In fact, wouldn’t any good bochur or kollel member also ask for Torah? Yet, we don’t find a multitude of Shlomo Hamelechs popping up in every yeshiva and bais medrash.
He offers a surprising answer. “I have searched,” he reports, “and have not found any of the commentaries on Tanach asserting that Shlomo was limited to one wish, as people often imagine.” Actually, Shlomo Hamelech could have asked for everything, including gadlus baTorah. However, for him, there was only one thing in the world and that is Torah. It was this that impressed Hashem.
There are other major examples of this restrictive yearning. I had the great zechus of visiting several gedolei Torah when they were over a hundred years old. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and others who were definitely in their upper nineties were all immersed in a Gemara just before my visit and their heads and eyes were back into it before I left. This is true love of Torah and a commitment never to miss a second.
Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir, loved Torah so much that he sought to learn and hear divrei Torah at every opportunity, even from his own talmidim. Not only did he pay them for delivering a chaburah, he made sure to listen carefully. An amazing example is what happened at a Mirrer wedding. The rosh yeshiva was mesader kiddushin, but knocked at the door of the yichud room before the couple had emerged. Opening the door, the surprised chosson was shocked to see his revered rosh yeshiva standing there. “Forgive me, but I have to leave,” Rav Leizer Yudel intoned. The baffled chosson responded, “It’s okay, rebbi. We’re just happy that the rosh yeshiva was able to attend and honor us with siddur kiddushin.”
“But I must leave,” the rosh yeshiva repeated.
Finally, the chosson was astounded to understand that the rosh yeshiva wanted to hear his chaburah. In those days and in some circles even today, the chosson would recite an original shtickel Torah at his tish. However, since Rav Leizer Yudel needed to leave, he didn’t want to miss a “Torah opportunity”!
On a similar occasion, a new father shared the wonderful news that his wife had given birth to a girl. After saying “mazel tov,” the rosh yeshiva continued, “You knew that she was expecting, but you didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. You must have prepared a devar Torah for a shalom zochor. Please tell me what you would have said.”
What is the source of such profound love of the Torah?
I once heard Rav Mordechai Gifter, rosh yeshivas Telshe, explain a cryptic commentary of Rabbeinu Avrohom Min Hahar (Nedorim 48a). The recently published manuscript of a Rishon quoted an anonymous opinion that although sometimes we hold that “mitzvos lav leihanos nitnu – mitzvos were not given for pleasure, but to be fulfilled,” occasionally one would be prohibited from teaching Torah if he was not permitted to benefit him. However, Rabbeinu Avrohom strongly demurred. He opined that it was impossible to contemplate such a thing, since the essence of Torah learning is its profound pleasure. Rav Gifter revealed that the anonymous opinion was that of the Rashba, but out of respect for his rebbi, Rabbeinu Avrohom avoided quoting him by name just to refute his words. In any case, as Rav Gifter concluded, even contemplating learning Torah without enjoyment was impossible.
Indeed, the Levush (Orach Chaim 47) rules concerning Birkas HaTorah that “one must be extremely scrupulous to show that the Torah is so important to a person and that he enjoys learning at least as much as any physical pleasure that requires a brocha.” The Sochatchover Rebbe, in the introduction to his sefer on the melachos of Shabbos, Iglei Tal, writes that “the essence of Torah is to be joyous and glad that he is learning, so that the words of the Torah will then be absorbed into his bloodstream. Then and only then will he become one with the Torah.”
Let’s analyze how we can strive to fulfill this great goal of learning Torah with the love and intense pleasure with which it was given. Chazal (Avodah Zarah 3a) state that “a person should learn Torah from the place he wishes.” Rabbeinu Yonah (Mishlei 2:4) explains that this means that a person will be successful at learning Torah when he learns something he enjoys, which is the true goal of all Torah study. Perhaps, on Shavuos night and even beyond, we should make sure to begin every study session with something to which we are looking forward, not something we feel obligated to learn. This will eventually lead to loving every area of Torah, as Rav Chaim Kanievsky taught us by example, but at least we will begin with the proper attitude toward some of our learning. In this way, each one of us can share in the cosmic endeavor of learning Torah with complete love.
To be sure, many gedolim felt that this way of learning should come naturally. The Ran (Drasha 10) writes “that it is natural that when a person’s intellect is stimulated, he will take pleasure in that study.” The Ramchal, too (introduction to Daas Tevunos), writes that it is a part of a person’s nature to enjoy the truth of the Torah, to the point that anyone who is intellectually healthy must look forward to engaging in this joyous endeavor.” Indeed, a number of gedolim, such as the Chazon Ish, who had to undergo surgery but were not candidates for general anesthesia, simply concentrated upon an area of Torah study and were able to undergo the operation without pain. Such is the ideal of Torah immersion. However, for most of us, we should begin by learning something that is truly interesting and compelling for our own limited interest.
My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos, Maamar 9), utilized this concept to explain a cryptic Gemara (Shabbos 3b): “When [your rebbi] is engaged in learning one tractate of Gemara, do not ask him about another.” Rashi explains that it is because he may not be capable of answering a question from another area of study, since he is not involved in it at that moment. However, Rav Hutner references the Gemara (Shabbos 88b) that when Hashem gave the Torah, the entire world became permeated with perfume upon each of the Ten Commandments. The Gemara asks, “If the whole world was already filled, how was there room for the next commandment? The answer is that a special wind came and made room for the next one.” Rav Hutner asks: Why couldn’t each commandment fill one-tenth of the universe, solving the problem? The answer is that each aspect of Torah, each commandment and even every word, is all-encompassing and so fulfilling that there is no room for anything else. That is the way we received the Torah 3,000 years ago and that is the way to learn it today. Its joy, fulfillment and rapture should be so intoxicating (see Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2) that it fills to satisfaction and energizes every fiber of our body and soul. May we learn the Torah with total pleasure, bringing with it geulos and simcha for all of Klal Yisroel.