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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas: Study to practice
The next thing mentioned in the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah, is "to study in order to practice". The person who studies in order to practice, not only does he merit Divine assistance to observe so as not to transgress any of the negative commandments and to practice all the positive commandments, he also merits to both study for himself and to teach others. The one who studies in order to practice will go the extra mile to try to make sure that he fulfills the commandments in the best possible way. When it comes to a lecture on practical halacha in our daily lives this does not attract too many, and only a few dedicated diehards will show up. The Chofetz Chaim writes that if a person only has a limited time for Torah study, his focus must be on learning the practical aspects how to conduct himself in his daily life according to the Torah. Some people claim that it is better not to study practical halacha in detail so that if they transgress a commandment they do so out of ignorance and not knowingly. If a person studies the words of the sages, G'd will help him to overcome his evil inclination and fulfill the commandments. The Talmud concludes that study is more important than practice for only with study can one practice. Whoever studies Torah and does not practice it, he would be better off had he not been born. "And when you rise from your study, seek if there is something that you have learned that you can put into practice." Rabbi Shalom Schwadron used to tell a parable about a needy person who asked for an appointment with a wealthy acquaintance.
Study to practice
The next thing mentioned in the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah, is "to study in order to practice". Earlier in Pirkei Avos (4:6) it says: "The one who studies Torah in order to teach he is given [Divine] assistance to study and to teach. And the one who studies in order to practice he is given [Divine] assistance to study and to teach, to observe and to practice."
Rabbeinu Yonah asks, what is the difference between these two people? No doubt, the one who studies in order to teach also has the intent to practice what he is studying. For if someone only has an interest to study Torah in order to become a teacher, but with no intent to practice what he is teaching, such a person for sure will not merit any Divine assistance to accomplish what he is intending to do. This person will be left to choose whatever he decides like any other person who does not want to observe the laws of the Torah. So the one who studies in order to teach will also practice. Similarly, the person who studies in order to practice, not only does he merit Divine assistance to observe so as not to transgress any of the negative commandments and to practice all the positive commandments, he also merits to both study for himself and to teach others. This person can be trusted as a teacher of Torah. For he clearly shows that he understands that the Torah is not an ancient code of laws with no relevance today and he does not study it for the intellectual enjoyment. So at the end of the day, both the one who studies in order to teach and the one who studies in order to practice seem to be doing the same thing.
Go the extra mile
Says Rabbeinu Yonah, in fact there is a huge difference between the two. The one who just studies in order to teach, he will be engaged in a more superficial study of Torah and he will be satisfied as long as he understands the simple meaning. But the one who studies in order to practice, he will delve deeper into the text and spend a lot of time to seek the truth of the Torah with all its fine nuances. Both of them observe the commandments, but their attitude is very different. For example, the first one will rely on any lenient opinion and accept the stamp of kashrus of any rabbi. But the second one will go the extra mile to try to make sure that he fulfills the commandments in the best possible way. He will not look for leniencies and will make sure that a reliable rabbinic authority is in charge of a kashrus certification before he uses it. The difference in their approach to Torah study will thus be noticeable in every detail of their observance.
Many people want to study and enhance their knowledge of what the Torah teaches us. In today's society, there is an abundance of books and CDs available, as well as many live lectures and seminars, offering a wide variety of Torah subjects and study. We find that when the subjects are more general or on a theoretical level, such as the mystical teachings of Kabbalah, or philosophical lessons based on the Torah, people are eager to participate. But if we peruse the gamut of Torah subjects, such as the weekly Parasha, Mishnah and Talmud, the popularity diminishes. And when it comes to a lecture on practical halacha as it applies to our daily lives it does not attract too many, and only a few dedicated diehards will show up.
The Chofetz Chaim teaches that it should be just the other way around. In his introduction to Mishnah Berurah, he writes that if a person only has a limited time for Torah study, his focus must be on learning the practical aspects how to conduct himself in his daily life according to the Torah. He quotes the Talmud (Berachos 8a) that describes how G'd has a special love for the places that study practical halacha, more than for any other house of worship or study hall. He further quotes the halachic authorities who rule that one is obligated to fix a time every day to learn the practical aspects of halacha (see commentary of Sha"ch on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 246:5).
Transgression and ignorance
In the introduction to his Book, Chofetz Chaim, he mentions that some people claim that it is better not to study practical halacha in detail so that if they transgress a commandment they do so out of ignorance and not knowingly. They base this idea on the Talmud (Shabbos 148b) that teaches that it is better to leave people to transgress out of ignorance than knowingly. The Chofetz Chaim refutes this and explains that it only applies when it concerns something not mentioned specifically in the Torah, as the Shulchan Aruch explicitly rules (Or HaChaim 608:2). In addition to this, it only deals with the question of making another person aware of his transgression. It was never a reason not to study and stay ignorant. And even in regards to others, the commentaries explain that it is a very limited exception.
Overcome evil inclination
The Chofetz Chaim quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (Bamidbar 14:4) that if a person studies the words of the sages, G'd will help him to overcome his evil inclination and fulfill the commandments. It is well known that the evil inclination can attack a person in two ways: either from within, enticing him to do what he should not do, or from without through people trying to keep him from doing what he knows is right, or vice versa. A classic example of this is when the snake approached Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Importance of practice
Earlier in Pirkei Avos (1:17) the Mishnah stresses the importance of studying in order to practice. As it says, "The study is not the main thing but the practice." Obviously, it is impossible to practice without having studied. The Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) actually discusses what is of greater importance, to study or to practice. And the Talmud concludes that study is more important for only with study one can practice.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 1:2) takes this a step further and says that whoever studies Torah and does not practice it, he would be better off had he not been born. In order to explain these harsh words, the Vilna Gaon quotes the Talmud (Niddah 30b) that teaches that the fetus is taught the whole Torah while in his mother's womb. As he enters this world an angel taps him on his mouth and makes him forget everything that he has studied. The purpose of teaching the fetus all of the Torah and then making him forget it is in order to make it easier when the child grows up to retrieve what he has already once learned. Says the Vilna Gaon, if there would be a purpose just to study Torah without practicing it, then there would be no need for the child to be born, for every child accomplished that already before birth. The whole purpose of the child being born into this world is that he should be in a place where he has the opportunity to practice what he is studying. He only learned the Torah as a fetus as preparation for his subsequent study in this world after he is born. G'd only created this world for that purpose. The Zohar (Shemos 161b) already hints at this and says, "G'd looked in the Torah and created the world." The deeper meaning of this is that the world was created in such a way that every word of the Torah can be observed in this world.
Put into practice
Even the parts of the Torah that deals with the laws that we cannot fulfill without the Temple or relate to the lives of our ancestors also contain important lessons for us. And the same applies to every tractate of the Talmud, and every story mentioned there. As the Ramban writes in his letter to his son, "And you shall take care to study the Torah so that you can fulfill what it teaches. And when you rise from your study, seek if there is something that you have learned that you can put into practice."
Every morning we ask for Divine assistance in our Torah study in the blessing just before reciting Shema. We say, "Our Father … have mercy upon us and instill in our hearts to understand … to study and teach, to observe, perform and fulfill all the words of Your Torah's teaching with love." In this blessing, we express our intent to study Torah in order to teach and to practice and we beg G'd for His Divine assistance to accomplish this. Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, the famous maggid from Jerusalem, used to describe this prayer with a parable about a needy person who asked for an appointment with a wealthy acquaintance. He was told to come at a specific time but did not show up. This repeated itself several times until one day the wealthy gentleman explained to him that there is nothing he can do for him if he does not come to discuss his problems. In the same way, said Rabbi Schwadron, it is not sufficient that we ask for Divine assistance. G'd is ready and waiting for us but we must make sure to show up to study. Then, and only then, we will merit to study, teach and practice with an abundance of Divine assistance.
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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