Taking Our Learning to a Higher Level

The elation and euphoria of the Siyum Hashas has borne fruit. As I looked around the crowded room on Sunday morning when we began Maseches Brachos, I was filled with pride and joy. Chazal speak of nisrabu hasafsolim (Brachos 28b), the filling of the seats in the bais medrash and I understood the feeling. Later, I spoke with a number of colleague maggidei Daf Yomi shiurim and the wonderful story was the same.

However, those of us who have boruch Hashem taught several cycles commiserated together that the numbers would undoubtedly soon change. Realistically speaking, Brachos will probably be stable, perhaps even parts of Shabbos. One of the rabbonim sighed and simply uttered the words, “Oy, Eiruvin is coming soon.”

Now, in truth it’s not that soon, and some people love Eiruvin, but it was enough to give me pause. Perhaps this time, we can convince more people to stay the course. It certainly seemed from the more than 90,000 people at MetLife, Barclays and other locations that this time many more finished than almost eight years ago and we can hope and anticipate that the same will hold true for the next Siyum. But what can we do to stop the attrition and increase the perseverance?

Because it is so dear to me, I will begin with an anecdote I have shared before. I had the privilege of being on a plane with Rav Simcha Wasserman zt”l, the beloved rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon and son of Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l Hy”d. After greeting me warmly in the aisle, he inquired, “Rabbi Feitman, do you know what a speed bump is?” Somewhat taken aback by the sudden non sequitur, I responded, “Sure, it’s a structure built into the ground to slow us down.” Rav Simcha left me with food for thought by the pithy phrase, “That’s Gemara,” and we both proceeded to our seats to obey the signs above.

I did think about it a lot, but alas I did not have a chance to pursue the concept with Rav Simcha. However, I had occasion to use the idea very soon. A brilliant former yeshiva student confided in me a few days later that he doesn’t learn anymore. When I inquired why, he explained that in his own field, he was considered quite successful and articulate, but when attempting to learn Gemara, he always felt like a tenth grade loser. As a mature man with a loving family and respectful employees, he had no interest in returning to the years of what he perceived as failure, humiliation and defeat. I said to him, “Yossi, do you know what a speed bump is?”

On one of the videos at the Siyum Hashas, Rav Dovid Cohen credited ArtScroll with the Daf Yomi revolution. Indeed, as I look around at 7:15 a.m. every morning, most of those in the room are following along in an ArtScroll Gemara. This is of course wonderful. But to some extent, we have all entered a misleading dimension where ameilus and yegiah – the twin ideals of sweating out a sugya – are almost gone. The good news is that we can learn on the train or plane, hotel room or office lunch, right after the chupah or on vacation. But faced with difficult words, concepts or ideas, we sometimes still turn off or even leave until a more user-friendly masechta returns.

I still remember painfully the last time around with Eiruvin when someone cavalierly informed me, “I’ll see you for Megillah.”

Perhaps the time has come for us to remind ourselves that Torah was not meant to come easily or to be absorbed like a novel in an easy chair. Rashi, twice in the beginning of Bechukosai, reminds us that walking in Hashem’s statutes requires toil and mental exertion. In his commentary on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 99a), he adds that “everyone in the world was created to work; fortunate is he whose toil is in Torah.”

The Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Eikev 850) reflects a similar thought: “There is no one in the world who is free of suffering. One who has a toothache cannot sleep; one whose eye is bothering him cannot sleep. The one who is awake toiling in Torah is also not sleeping. However, fortunate is the person whose suffering is because he is learning Torah.”

Many gedolim have taught us the important lesson of learning only through yegiah and ameilus, straining to the utmost and using all of our mental faculties to understand Hashem’s precious Torah. Some of the greatest poskim told of their herculean efforts to arrive at their halachic conclusions in the introductions to their major works. The Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo) writes that “Sometimes I would delve deeply for an entire week on one question, searching for just one source or path toward a solution. This was accomplished with little sleep and consultation with both my colleagues and students.”

The Shach (Sifsei Kohein) records that “I did not let sleep cross my eyes for many years, while I struggled to examine every side of a question… I did not write a single word or letter unless I had sifted it as clean as the finest flour.”

The Pnei Yehoshua begs his readers not to jump to conclusions until they, too, have analyzed his words, because “I have often spent a month on a particular sugya until I was satisfied with the result.”

One of the greatest geniuses of many centuries, the Gaon of Vilna, had difficulty understanding a passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi. His closest talmid, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, arrived for a visit and was immediately summoned to the Gaon’s home. The Gra’s head was wrapped in a towel and he was clearly in deep distress. “Please help me understand this passage,” he virtually begged his beloved talmid. Rav Chaim responded that if his brilliant rebbi could not understand, how could he possibly help? The Gaon responded that, nevertheless, “two are better than one,” and Rav Chaim made a suggestion. The Gaon’s eyes lit up and he became filled with joy. He removed the towel from his head and asked for a bite to eat. Rav Chaim later heard from the family that the Gaon had not tasted food in three days (Aliyos Eliyahu, page 102).

So it was for all the most brilliant of our leaders, whom we would think could understand everything instantly. However, they knew that nothing in Torah can come easily or automatically.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik was once so engrossed in considering a Torah issue that he stood for six hours with his hands behind his back thinking deeply. At one point, he even asked, “What is that behind me?” having forgotten that they were his own arms (Peninei Rabbeinu Yechezkel).

These are the true ways of the gedolei Torah. But what of those who simply cannot understand something basic or simple? Is there hope for them or should they not even bother trying?

The Steipler Gaon (Sefer Chayei Olam) literally promises that “one who has tremendous difficulty learning but tries his very best will receive special siyata diShmaya – Divine assistance – to be successful far beyond his natural capabilities.”

Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, author of the Birkas Shmuel, was learning with his talmidim in the Kaminetz Yeshiva when someone asked a powerful question on one of the Rishonim. No one could see even the beginnings of an answer, but the rosh yeshiva jumped in with a scintillating solution. Every talmid was stunned by their rebbi’s brilliance, but Rav Boruch Ber suddenly became silent, wandering around the room with his hand over his forehead. Finally, he spoke.

“My dear children,” he confessed, “I did the wrong thing. Chazal tell us that ‘if you have not toiled, do not believe that you have found the right answer.’ I should not have jumped so impulsively to answer. Nothing comes in Torah without yegiah.” He continued to pace around the bais medrash until he finally began again, coming to the exact same conclusion as before, except that this time he was satisfied, since the answer had come as the fruits of his hard work in Torah.

It is well-known that the Chazon Ish labored mightily over every line of his great works. In fact, one prominent talmid heard him say that he labored over every chiddush (novel thought) for forty days (Pe’er Hador 3:68; Maaseh Ish 6:14).

The Taz writes (Orach Chaim 47) that halachically, “anyone who does not labor over his learning, his Torah will not last within him and it is as if he did not make a brocha on the Torah in the morning (see Nedorim 81a). Taking the Daf to a higher level actually means going deep as well. There are many venues today for reviewing the Daf, delving into meforshim and discovering the hidden pearls of wisdom of practical application. It is time to use our brains, stretch our minds and hearts, and take ourselves and our learning to another level, the world of yegiah and ameilus, which will open up the heavens to our already thirsting souls.