Parshas Mishpatim is the second week of reading about Matan Torah. It is therefore fitting to continue with this theme, particularly regarding the exalted nature of learning Torah, and with a specific focus on the endeavor of persevering in one’s Torah learning through trying times. As a starting point, consider the commentary of the Netziv on last week’s parsha (Harcheiv Davar, 19:18-19), regarding the Torah’s statement, “and the entire Sinai mountain was smoking because Hashem had descended upon it in fire; its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace…the sound of the shofar blast got stronger.” The smoke emanating from the mountain, explains the Netziv, alludes to Jewish suffering throughout the long exile, and the shofar blast is a reference to Klal Yisrael’s ironclad commitment to learning Torah. Almost counterintuitively, the more difficult the galus becomes, the more that Torah scholarship comes to fruition. Even under the harshest conditions, Klal Yisrael thrives in and through the Torah. It is not a coincidence that the primary Talmud, Talmud Bavli, was formed specifically in the diaspora. Taking this concept yet one step further, the Netziv asserts that, had the Jewish People forever remained in Eretz Yisrael amidst calm and tranquility, the Oral Law would never have flourished as much as it ultimately did. It is precisely the difficulties and hardships of galus, underscores the Netziv, that brings about such an excellence of Torah scholarship. From a purely logical assessment, this phenomenon may defy explanation, yet it is a fact that we can observe with our own eyes!
It is the Torah that is our source of strength to survive the bitter galus. In ahavah rabbah, the brachah recited immediately prior to Shema every morning, we exclaim how Hashem loved us with a great love and had chemlah (compassion) for us. This formulation, explains the Netziv, is referring to the fact that Hashem gave us the Torah which is our “weapon” for thriving in galus. We follow up that declaration with a heartfelt request that Hashem endow us with the ability to understand His Torah and fulfill all of its mandates. (Parenthetically, there is a reliable tradition that when the Netziv would say this brachah, there would be a puddle of tears on the floor. That was how intensely the Netziv yearned to understand the Torah.) The Netziv reiterates this fundamental – namely, that the hardships of galus are the driving force for Klal Yisrael’s success in Torah learning – many times throughout his commentary on the Chumash.
In this context, it’s worthwhile to mention an idea put forward by the Chasam Sofer (Drashos Chasam Sofer, Behaaloscha, 10:34). Chazal say (Shabbos 116a) that the pesukim of vayehi binsoa ha’aron, which make mention of the transporting of the Aron Kodesh, actually belonged elsewhere. They were placed here, says the Gemara, to comprise a break between two particular sins that Klal Yisrael committed in the desert. The first being that they ran away from Har Sinai like school children running away from school, and the second sin is their complaint about not having meat. The Chasam Sofer explains that Klal Yisrael had a certain degree of laxity in learning Torah (according to their lofty level, which we can’t even begin to fathom) which expressed itself when they “fled” Har Sinai like a child dashing out of school. Had Klal Yisrael not fallen at that time, elaborates the Chasam Sofer, they would never have been subject to any exile whatsoever! It was at that moment in history that Klal Yisrael, through their lack of total dedication to Torah, created the potential of having to go into galus. Underscoring this point, continues the Chasam Sofer, is the expression of the Medrash (Medrash Rabbah, Vayikra, 35:6) that “the Book and the Sword descended from Heaven. If Klal Yisrael upholds the Book, they will be spared from the Sword.” In other words, a full, uncompromising commitment to Torah would have obviated any possibility of Klal Yisrael ever being subjugated to the nations of the world. Since – though their running away from Har Sinai – this did not materialize and Klal Yisrael did in fact become vulnerable to the potential of galus and persecution at the hands of the nations of the world, what immediately follows is the set of pesukim that contain the words, “arise Hashem and let your foes be scattered.” The enemies referred to in the pasuk only came into existence because of Klal Yisrael’s slackness. Had they not faltered, Klal Yisrael would have existed on a plane that transcends the natural order, such that the nations of the world would never have been able to cause them the slightest bother. Now, though, the Jewish people are potentially subject to the evils of their enemies – until, b’ezras Hashem, Mashiach will come – and the way we are able to prevail is by tenaciously clinging to learning Torah.
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky (d. 1940), the undisputed Torah leader of pre-WWII European Jewry, echoes this sentiment in the beautiful introduction to his work of responsa, Achiezer, which he first published while Europe was still smoldering from the effects of WWI: “Why, the reader may be wondering, am I publishing a sefer at such a difficult time for the Jewish People? Klal Yisrael is drowning in a sea of tears and you are busy singing shirah?! But the truth is just the opposite of such a notion. For it is the delight of Torah study that is our strength even at a time of destruction. Throughout its long and bitter history, Klal Yisrael has toiled in Torah, and it served them as a life-giving elixir. And in our times as well – a time of war – we witness the wonder of numerous yeshivos wandering from place place, exiled yet tenaciously clinging to the Torah. The eternal light of Torah continuing to burn brightly…”
This idea is easy to talk about and easy to read about, but it’s not necessarily so easy to live up to. So why mention it at all? First of all, we have to make as clear as can possibly be that the power of persevering in Torah through hardship is not limited only to the Torah study of the greats such as Rav Chaim Ozer. Likewise, the perseverance of which we speak is not only the likes of Rabi Akiva and the ten martyrs. Rabi Akiva was moser nefesh for Torah to such an extent that, even following his incarceration for teaching Torah publicly, he was sent shailos in jail and he paskened those shailos from jail! It’s a degree of self-sacrifice which is just above and beyond. But, make no mistake! It is not only their level of Torah scholarship and mesiras nefesh which was holy and pure and served as an abiding source of strength for Klal Yisrael. It is our Torah learning, too, that is an integral part of the existence of Klal Yisrael in galus! Klal Yisrael consists of individuals. Every person can and should recognize the power that is inherent in his Torah learning, and see to it that his Torah learning be worthy of giving life to Klal Yisrael. Tragedies and hardships come in all manner of forms and sizes, big and small, and it is our Torah learning that will serve as the protective shield from potential suffering.
No less important, we need to recognize that it can sometimes be easier to improve and rise to the challenge when the tzarah at hand is of a large-scale nature. Some of the best learning in Eretz Yisrael took place during the Gulf War. Bnei Yeshiva everywhere were simply glued to the Gemara. The learning was so intense, and with such a strong sense of clinging to the Ribbono Shel Olam, that its delight defied description! Sometimes, the relatively small nuisances and humdrum hardships can throw you off balance to a greater degree than a really big, looming problem. Framing these more routine hurdles in the right context – namely, that they too are the “smoke” that gives us the potential to reach ever higher levels of learning Torah – empowers one to grow from them. The point, then, is to be cognizant of the need to overcome not only the “menacing beasts” that stand in our path, but also the “little mosquitos” as well! Every little disturbance generates distracting smoke, and our survival and continuity derives from our steadfast commitment to the Torah through those difficulties and hardships. (Audio recording)
Quotables “If one keeps his mind occupied with thoughts of Torah, he has nothing to fear, because if it is his time to leave this world, he will have left while in the midst of Torah.”
Vignettes One Thursday, when I walked into the shiur room to learn with Rav Twersky, he pointed out to me that there was 100-shekel bill sitting on the table. It clearly looked like someone had lost it. Rav Twersky seemed both excited and nervous about this opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of returning a lost item. His excitement expressed itself with the eagerness to put up a sign so that hopefully the money would be returned to its owner. His nervousness was manifest by the fact that he asked me to be the one to hold on to the money until it was returned. He said, “Let’s split the mitzvah. I will write the sign, and you hold on to the money until someone comes to claim it.” I was more than happy to be part of this mission. Rav Twersky took out a piece of paper and begain writing the notice. Something about the appearance of the bill got me wondering, and, indeed, went I picked it up, my hunch was confirmed. It was play money. “Rebbi,” I said to Rav Twersky, “it’s a fake bill. It’s just play money.” He wasn’t convinced, though. He reached into his wallet and removed a real 100-shekel bill to compare to the one we had found. Low and behold, the latter was quite a bit smaller than the real bill and differed in other, significant ways. Rav Twersky seemed a bit taken aback. There was an awkward silence for a few moments, and I got the distinct feeling that Rav Twersky was troubled that we had wasted a few minutes, and that he had confused fake money for real money. Not long before that incident, I heard someone relate an excerpt from Talmud Yerushalmi that I thought would lighten up the situation, and, at the same time, seemed to me to be such an appropriate description of Rav Twersky. “Rebbi,” I said to him, “I heard a Yerushalmi (Megillah 1:11) that says that Rabi Yehuda Ha’Nasi was called kadosh because he never looked at his milah, but Rabi Nachum was called kodesh ha’kadashim because he never gazed at money!” Rav Twersky blushed, smiled, and in his classic humility said with enthusiasm, “Really? It says that in the Yerushalmi?!” That was that, and we immediately started our learning session. (Reb Chaim Rosen)