Naaseh Venishma: The Torah Challenge in Every Generation

We are all justly proud of our naaseh venishma. We accepted everything in the Torah before knowing the details. For this, every Jew received two crowns from six hundred thousand angels (Shabbos 88a). This phrase was considered a secret usually limited only to the hosts of heaven (ibid.). Yet, when we consider the situation, we must wonder what was so special about Klal Yisroel’s commitment.

We left Mitzrayim laden with gold and silver (Brachos 5b) and every member of the nation was cured of any illness, disease or distressing condition (Mechilta, Yisro 9). We were eating the monn from heaven and drinking delicious water from Miriam’s well, and our clothing were being dry cleaned by the Clouds of Glory. The same Ananei Hakavod pulverized mountains for us and raised valleys so that we could travel with ease. Who wouldn’t accept the Torah under those wondrous conditions? Furthermore, the Rishonim (see Tosafos ibid.) ask: Why did Hashem have to raise the mountain over the Bnei Yisroel when we had already indicated our absolute compliance?

One answer is that the Kabbolas HaTorah of 3,331 years ago included every future difficulty and even catastrophe we would ever encounter. The horrific times of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, the enormous tragedy of 1648-49, and the unspeakable suffering of Churban Europa were all part of our naaseh venishma promise. Avrohom Avinu had already experienced these afflictions at the Bris Bein Habesarim (Bereishis 15:12), when he, too, felt the future pain of his progeny. Yet, just as he did not waver, so did Klal Yisroel accept the Torah forever, despite the agony that loomed ahead for centuries and millennia. The splendid conditions of Sinai and the years in the desert were sadly ephemeral, compared with the challenging eons of golus and torment. Yet, despite all that, naaseh venishma was the leitmotif that would carry us through the most difficult of days.

Surely this is one chiddush of naaseh venishma, the pledge that helped Klal Yisroel survive spiritually as well as physically through conditions that would have destroyed any other nation in but a fleeting moment of history.

An essay by Rabbi Moshe Bauer reminded me of a recurring story I heard from my survivor parents z”l and many of their contemporaries. A group of musselmen – the starving skeletal prisoners of Auschwitz and other death camps – were returning from one of the Nazi sadistic “actions.” Ostensibly to be deloused and disinfected for their own good, the prisoners, who had been deprived of their meager clothing, stood for sixteen hours in the brutal cold of the Polish winter, many dying in the process. When they finally were allowed to return to their “block,” they found that even the hard straw bedding was gone, with nothing to assuage their pain and frozen bodies. The brave and industrious men resolved to take advantage of shared body heat, some even quoting Koheles (4:11). They arranged multiple pyramids, with four men on the bottom, three above them, two higher and one on top. A tiny bit of the agony was relieved for as long as they were able to maintain the strange human heap.

One member of the pairs on the bottom turned to his equally miserable compatriot with a surprising proposal. Looking directly at a fellow but unfamiliar religious Jew, he whispered hoarsely, “I have a suggestion. You don’t have to accept, but I would be very pleased if you agreed.”

His tired companion reluctantly agreed to listen.

“I know one entire volume of Gemara, Maseches Beitza, by heart, and every day I have been reviewing one daf of Gemara.”

His barely alive neighbor inquired wearily, “What does that have to do with me?” The pyramid anchor responded, “Since Hashem has put us here together, would you consent to be my chavrusah? I will recite the page from memory and then we can discuss it in depth.”

With now shining eyes, the excited Jew agreed and a bais medrash was created in the killing fields of Auschwitz.

It was for moments like those that the naaseh venishma promise was praised and redounded to the eternal merit of Klal Yisroel.

Shlomo Hamelech teaches (Koheles 2:9) that despite experimenting with all manner of permissible pleasures and joys, “my wisdom stayed with me.” Chazal (Yalkut Koheles 2:9, No. 968) rearrange these Hebrew words of “af chochmosi omdu li” into “chochmah shelamdeti b’af omdu li – the Torah I learned under difficult circumstances stood by me.”

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l was a young orphan who learned for several years in a freezing shul with very little to eat. Yet, he later confessed that those were the best of his learning years because they were spent studying under the most trying conditions. It was the naaseh venishma of long ago that sustained the rosh yeshiva, helping to form the great gadol hador who led Klal Yisroel through difficult times. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:12) codifies this approach to Torah study in general: “The words of the Torah are not established within someone who holds them lightly nor with those who learn while pampered and full of food and drink. They only last in someone who kills himself over them in the tents of scholars.” The Lechem Mishnah comments, “If you let go of the Torah because you are busy or suffer from difficulties…the Torah will not remain yours.”

The Rambam echoes this interpretation in his commentary to Pirkei Avos (5:22): “The reward is in accordance with the suffering.” The Rambam writes, “There is no purpose at all in studying Torah in tranquility and rest.” The Taz (Orach Chaim 47:1), too, rules that Torah cannot be acquired under conditions of comfort and luxury. One thinks immediately of the spare home of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l, where he is sitting on a chair with no back, fulfilling the edict of “chochmah shelamadeti be’af.”

Interestingly, Rav Shach (introduction to Avi Ezri to Noshim) asks that there seems to be a contradiction to this opinion of the Rambam from his words elsewhere in his commentary to Avos (6:5), where he states that one of the 48 methods of acquiring the Torah is yishuv, which the Rambam interprets as yishuv hadaas, tranquility. This seems to imply that it is best to learn Torah under conditions that allow one to concentrate without distractions and frustrations.

Rav Shach answers that Torah study is different than other disciplines. For secular studies, it might be best to simply find a place where one can concentrate and absorb his subject. However, Torah cannot be acquired without siyata diShmaya, Divine assistance. Therefore, the process requires us to discover and create serenity in the midst of adversity and distractions. Of course we need yishuv hadaas, but we must create that oasis of concentration despite what is happening around us, not because it is easier or more convenient to learn someplace secluded or quiet.

The Steipler Gaon zt”l (Birkas Peretz, page 36) suggests that there are two reasons the Torah rests with those who suffer for her. First of all, it is only natural that one values that which he has obtained with difficulty. Secondly, he reminds us that “each and every bit of pain that someone suffers for the Torah fulfills one of the methods of Torah acquisition and cements the Torah within him.”

The Chofetz Chaim zt”l (Rabbi Moshe Meir Yasher’s The Chofetz Chaim, page 134) felt that it was a great zechus for Klal Yisroel when bochurim left their comfortable homes in America to travel to Radin. He even utilized this phenomenon to ask Hashem to help Klal Yisroel in the merit of young people choosing to learn Torah under difficult circumstances.

The Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat 9) quotes this concept as a halacha in deciding how to distribute funds left in a trust for young worthy boys to be supported amply to be able to grow into poskim and gedolei Torah. He warns that while the beneficiary wanted them to be “comfortable,” it would be counterproductive for them to be showered with luxurious accommodations, which would actually destroy their chances for Torah greatness.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, took all this one step further, which can give us a new insight into Klal Yisroel’s ironclad commitment to Torah under difficulty. The rebbetzin had passed away on the 15th of Kislev 5733 and the rosh yeshiva, with a heavy heart, began the divrei Torah commencing the mesibas Purim that year. His first words (Sefer Hazikaron Pachad Yitzchok, page 60) were, “Shlomo Hamelech says af chochmosi omdah li, which Chazal interpret as chochmoh shelamadeti be’af. Imagine the kal vechomer. If simply learning under pressure is so powerful, how much more so is being besimcha when it is so challenging!”

We may glean from his profound moving words that each step in Torah and avodah that we take under formidable conditions achieves exponentially more than anything that comes easily and naturally.

Naaseh venishma echoes eternally in many ways. One reminds us to embrace the Torah late at night and early in the morning, when we have been up late and when we must get up early, when we are eager to learn or too exhausted to think. Each challenge produces infinity of shining results. Let us be mekabel the Torah at all costs and in all situations. That itself will help us do the great things Klal Yisroel needs in our time. Ah gutten Shabbos and Yom Tov.