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Torah Attitude: Parashas Balak: How to be calm like the students of the Kelmer Talmud Torah
It is important that the person who strives to acquire Torah is in the right frame of mind. One's mind must be like a clear sky without any clouds. A judge must be patient before rendering judgment. The Kelmer Talmud Torah was famous for its strong focus on the development of character traits. Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian was one of the great disciples that went through the Kelmer Talmud Torah. The essence of trust is calmness. Worrying only breaks a person. Although Jacob prepared himself for all possibilities, he prayed to G'd being fully aware that without G'd's assistance none of his efforts would bring him salvation. There is little doubt that many adults, if they would be tested, would be found to suffer from A.D.D. "When I eat, it seems to me like everyone else is dead." When we sit down to a lecture or with a study partner everything else should disappear from our minds.
Right frame of mind
In the last two Torah Attitudes we discussed how to interact on different levels with other people in order to acquire Torah. In every one of these interactions it is important that the person who strives to acquire Torah is in the right frame of mind. One can have the best teachers, colleagues and students, but if one is nervous and agitated at the time of study, one will not be able to grasp the material being studied, and will have very little benefit from his interactions with others.
Mind like clear sky
Therefore, the next thing the Mishnah mentions, that is necessary in order to acquire Torah, is that one must be calm. The Talmud (Eruvin 65a) teaches that in order to be able to reach a halachic decision, one's mind must be like a clear sky without any clouds. In order to develop such calmness, we must train ourselves neither to be distracted by our surroundings nor to be disturbed by worries, whether real or imaginary. In this way, we will be able to focus and concentrate on our studies, when we attend a class or hear a lecture.
Patient before rendering judgment
Similarly, when we study with a partner, we must have the presence of mind to listen to what the other person says, and to contemplate how to respond if someone asks us a question. The first Mishnah of Pirkei Avos teaches that a judge must be patient before rendering judgment. This also applies whenever we are asked a question. We must be patient to make sure that we understand what we are asked and we must think it through before giving an answer.
In pre-war Eastern Europe, the Town of Kelm hosted a special yeshiva, known as the Kelmer Talmud Torah. The yeshiva was famous for its strong focus on the development of character traits. Many of the great mussar disseminators, who became Mashgichim in other yeshivas both before and after the Second World War, studied at this yeshiva. A local nobleman once invited many of his friends to go hunting. He decided that on their way to the woods he would take the other noblemen past the yeshiva. This was a boisterous crowd that made a lot of noise. But as they looked through the windows of the yeshiva, not one single student raised his head to see what all the commotion was about. These Talmud scholars had trained themselves to be totally focused on their study, and to not let any noise disturb them. As a matter of curiosity, most people tend to look up or turn around when any unusual noise is heard or when someone enters the room. But no in Kelm. Rabbi Simcha Zissel, known as the Alter of Kelm, trained his students to a high level of self-control and not to act on impulse. They applied their discipline not only to their study, but developed it to become part and parcel of their way of life. They stayed calm in any situation and would not express any kind of nervousness about the future. It was irrelevant whether it was something just about to happen or something that would only take place later in life.
The calmness of Rabbi Lopian
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian was one of the great disciples that went through the Kelmer Talmud Torah. It is well known that when Rabbi Lopian would wait for a bus, he was so much in control of himself that he would not turn to see whether the bus was coming. He explained that there was no purpose in looking for the bus since his looking would not affect when the bus would arrive. He therefore stayed totally calm until the bus actually arrived.
Essence of trust is calmness
How can a person develop such calmness? In Duties of the Hearts (Gate of Trust, Chapter 1) Rabbi Bachayei explains that the essence of trust is calmness. The trusting person feels secure and is not nervous about what is going to happen, and he relies on G'd that He will take care of his needs and look after him. This teaches us that our lack of calmness stems from our lack of trust in G'd. If we would only manage to internalize that everything is in the Hand of G'd then we would feel no need to worry. It is only because we feel that our life is dependent on our effort that we are nervous about our future. Although a person should make an effort to solve his problems, worrying about them will never help.
Worrying breaks a person
The Talmud (Berachos 58b) teaches that worrying only breaks a person. The Talmud asks that this seems to contradict what King Solomon says (Mishlei 28:14): "Praiseworthy is a person who is constantly in fear." The Talmud answers that this verse does not apply to every aspect of our lives. It only refers to a fear of forgetting the Torah one has studied. Therefore, one must constantly review what one has studied in order to retain the material. The Zohar (Vayishlach 168a) explains that this fear also refers to that a person's should worry that he may not be worthy of G'd's lovingkindness due to his past sins and shortcomings.
Both the Zohar and the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) explain that this was the basis of Jacob's fear prior to his encounter with Esau. Jacob first of all tried to appease Esau with lavish presents. But in case that would not have the desired effect, he prepared for the possibility of war. In the same way, we are obligated to make an effort to the best of our ability to deal with our challenges in life. However, at the same time that Jacob prepared himself for all possibilities, he prayed to G'd being fully aware that without G'd's assistance none of his effort would bring him salvation. We must conduct ourselves in the same way. On the one hand, we must make an effort and try to solve our issues in life. On the other hand, we must constantly keep in mind that our lot is in the Hands of G'd. The stronger we trust in G'd, the calmer we feel in every situation.
Nowadays, many children are diagnosed with A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder). There is little doubt that many adults, if they would be tested, would be found to suffer from the same problem. This has to do with our lifestyle. We live in a time where we crave instant satisfaction and have no patience to wait for results. If we read the lectures of rabbis who lived a few generations back we find that they spoke for hours to their students and congregations. Nowadays, it is difficult to keep an audience for more than twenty minutes. We simply lose our focus and concentration and have no patience to sit and listen.
"Everyone else is dead"
The story is told of a European Jew who had lived in the United States for many years. One day he met a visitor from his home town. He was very excited and invited the visitor for a meal as he wanted to catch up on events back home. As he sat down for the meal, he started asking about different acquaintances. He was horrified to find out that every person he asked about was no longer alive. In utter disbelief, he asked what calamity had befallen the town. "Oh no", said the visitor, "it is just that when I eat, it seems to me like everyone else is dead." This is how we should approach our Torah study. When we sit down to a lecture or with a study partner everything else should disappear from our minds. In this way, we can be totally calm and focused on what we study.
Focus on three things
In the first paragraph of Shema it says, "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart." This verse teaches us, says the Chofetz Chaim, that when one sits down to study Torah one should focus on three things: (1) "these words"; (2) "G'd commands me"; and (3) "to study today." We must realize that we all have our personal mission in life that only we can fulfill. And we must utilize every single day to reach our personal goals. Therefore, one should say to oneself before studying: "The Torah that I am about to learn is my sole focus, and I shall have nothing else on my mind but these words. I am aware that no one but me can accomplish my purpose in life, and I consider it as if G'd directly commanded me to study this material as part of my personal mission. Finally, I understand that what I am supposed to study today can not be done on any other day." With this attitude, we will be able to acquire the Torah that we study and retain it for ourselves, and when the opportunity arises we will be able to teach it to others as well.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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