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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nasso and Shavuous: We will do, ask, question and answer
The next thing that one needs to acquire Torah can be translated either as: "asking and answering" or "asking and questioning". Since the Torah is referred to as the Torah of truth, only a person who is truly looking for the truth can acquire Torah. Just like a fire will not last if just a single piece of wood is burning, so will Torah not last by a single individual. The Haggadah obligates us not only to answer the ones who ask the questions but to engage the "one who is not able to ask" in conversation. If a person first fulfills the commandment and then "tomorrow" comes back and asks, what is the significance and background of the commandment, this shows that the person is ready to accept and fulfill the commandment even if he does not yet understand the reason for it. At the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people said, "Na'aseh Venishma" ("We will do and will we listen.") "I learned a lot from my teachers. I learned even more from my colleagues. And from my students I learned the most." "Anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. And anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom will not endure." Most people will accept what the doctor says, and even if the patient is eager to understand how the medication works he will not wait to take it till he has learned how it works. We trust G'd and fulfill the commandments even if we do not understand the rationale behind them. The wicked son is looking for an excuse why he is not ready to fulfill the commandments. What happened before Creation, and what will happen after, and what is going on outside our world in the known universe, is beyond our comprehension. The Torah is a manual for our daily life, from the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night, and for each and every day of the yearly cycle.
Asking and questioning
There is a famous question. Why do Jewish people answer a question with a question? The general answer is, why not? It is interesting to note that the next thing, mentioned in the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah can be translated either as: "asking and answering" or "asking and questioning". This seems to indicate that some times it is appropriate to respond with a question to a question.
Torah of truth
When we are called up to the Torah, we say one blessing before the portion is read, and one after. In the second blessing, we thank G'd "Who gave us the Torah of truth." Since the Torah is referred to as the Torah of truth, only a person who is truly looking for the truth can acquire Torah. When two people study Torah together and discuss the material, they will often come across things that are not clear to them. Sometimes, one will ask a question and the other will give an answer. At other times, when one asks a question, the study partner will argue that the question is based on a misconception and therefore does not pose any issue. There can also be situations where the second party, in order to answer the question, will respond with another question. Which ever way the discussion develops, it is all for one purpose: to reach the truth and clarify the material they are studying. This may be the real reason why it has become second nature for people who study Torah to respond to a question with another question. For in this way, one will often be able to gain a better understanding of the truth of the Torah.
Torah like fire
The Prophet Jeremiah (23:29) says, "Are not my words like fire says G'd." The Talmud (Taanis 7a) explains that this refers to the Torah and asks, what is the significance of comparing Torah to fire? The Talmud answers that just like a fire will not last if just a single piece of wood is burning, so will Torah not last by a single individual. The Talmud continues with very harsh words against Torah scholars who study on their own without interacting with their colleagues. Such people, says the Talmud, will eventually become foolish and may end up transgressing the commandments of the Torah. As we have mentioned previously, the Torah was given to the Jewish people as a group, and not just to individuals. This is how we received it and this is how we study and transmit it from one generation to the next.
Haggadah four sons
On Seder night, we read in the Haggadah how the Torah refers to four sons who represent four different types of people. Three of them ask questions but the fourth one has not yet reached the stage where he is able to formulate any questions. The Haggadah obligates us not only to answer the ones who ask the questions but to engage the "one who is not able to ask" in conversation. The Torah encourages asking and questioning as this develops a person's mind and enables him to learn and become knowledgeable. This is the meaning of what it says earlier in Pirkei Avos (2:6), "The shy person will not learn." For the shy person will not ask questions and interact with others. This is a challenge for every educator. It is relatively easy to make sure that someone who asks questions knows the material. But when one deals with a shy person it becomes much more difficult to make sure that the student understands what is being taught.
Timing of questions
The Haggadah quotes from the Torah the three questions asked by the other sons, and although the Torah just refers to each of them as a son who asks a question, the Haggadah gives each one a title: the wise son, the wicked son and the simple son. This teaches us that even if we do not know the person, we can learn a lot about him by listening to the questions he asks, not only from the choice of words but also from the timing of his questions.
The commentaries point out that the questions of the three sons seem very similar, so how did the author of the Haggadah know which title to give to which son? The Kli Yakar (Shemos 13:14) makes part of the distinction according to the time when the questions are being asked. For two of the questions, the Torah writes that they are being asked "tomorrow". Rashi (ibid) explains that sometimes "tomorrow" refers to the next day and sometimes it refers to a later stage. In this case, says Rashi, "tomorrow" refers to sometime down the road, even years after the exodus from Egypt. But the Kli Yakar explains that one can understand "tomorrow" as referring to the day after a certain event. All the questions of the sons are mentioned in connection with the performance of a commandment. Says the Kli Yakar, if a person asks questions before the fulfillment of the commandment, this may be an indication that he is not ready to accept the Torah for himself. But if a person first fulfills the commandment and then "tomorrow" comes back and asks, what is the significance and background of the commandment, this shows that the person is ready to accept and fulfill the commandment even if he does not yet understand the reason for it.
In a few days time, we will celebrate the Festival of Shavuous, the day when we received the Torah. At the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people said (Shemos 24:7), "Na'aseh Venishma" ("We will do and will we listen.") The obvious question arises, how is possible to do something before one hears what it is that one has to do? There are several ways to explain the meaning of this seemingly illogical statement. One of the ways how we can explain it is by analyzing the word "Nishma". The simple understanding is we will listen with our ears. But it can also be understood as listening with our heart, which is to understand and accept.
Learn most from students
We have mentioned in the past that the Rambam (The Laws of Meilla (The Prohibition of Using Anything Belonging to the Temple For Personal Use) 8:8) says that everyone is obligated to try to understand the commandments of the Torah and delve into the background of them to the best of his abilities. The best way to achieve this is by interacting with others. The Talmud (Berachos 63b) makes this very clear and teaches that the Torah can only be acquired when one studies with a group. At every stage of one's development, one needs others to study with. In the earlier stages, the emphasis is on having good teachers and mentors. Later, the most important part is to have good study partners. And eventually, one will continue to grow in one's personal scholarship by teaching others. The Talmud (Taanis 7a) quotes a statement by the great sage, Rabbi Chanina who said, "I learned a lot from my teachers. I learned even more from my colleagues. And from my students I learned the most." Through the students' questions, the teacher acquires a better and clearer understanding of the subject that they study.
Deeds exceed wisdom
When our ancestors accepted the Torah they said "Na'aseh Venishma", first "we will do" and only then "we will listen", meaning we will try to understand what we are doing. With this we can understand what it says earlier in Pirkei Avos (3:12): "Anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. And anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom will not endure." At first sight, this Mishnah seems very strange. How can a person do more than he knows? However, what the Mishnah is really teaching us is that when a person is ready to fulfill the Torah commandments, even if he does not yet understand why, such a person will grow in his wisdom as well as his observance. But if a person limits his readiness to fulfill the commandments, and bases his observance on his personal understanding, such a person is not accepting the Torah and is unlikely to grow in his wisdom, not to mention his observance.
Medication from doctor
This is comparable to someone who visits his doctor and needs medication. Most people will accept what the doctor says, and even if the patient is eager to understand how the medication works he will not wait to take it till he has learned how it works. He will trust the expertise of his doctor and take the medication as instructed. Only a fool will say that he is not ready to take the medication until he understands all of the details of how it works.
This is how we accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai and this is how we acquire it today. We trust G'd and fulfill the commandments even if we do not understand the rationale behind them. Subsequently, we make an effort to understand the reason behind the commandments to the best of our ability. If every individual would make his observance dependent on his personal understanding, it would be the end of the Jewish community. For everyone has a different understanding and no two people would fulfill the commandments in the same way. In fact, we differentiate between various types of commandments. Some of them are logical to us, such as the prohibition against killing and stealing. But other commandments are beyond our understanding, such as the prohibition against mixing milk and meat products and wearing garments that contain a mixture of wool and linen. We fulfill them all recognizing that G'd instructed us to do them only for our benefit.
Wicked son looking for excuse
The wise son and the simple son both wait until after the fulfillment of the commandments. Only the next day does each one ask his question according to his level of understanding. They do not make their fulfillment of the commandments dependent on their understanding. The wicked son also asks questions. But his questions are asked immediately and not out of a quest to understand, but rather to ridicule what he perceives as outdated traditions and ceremonies. He is not looking for the truth. He is looking for an excuse why he is not ready to fulfill the commandments.
Beyond our comprehension
In Parashas Va'Eschanan (Devarim 4:32-33) Moses speaks to the Jewish people at the end of their sojourn in the wilderness and reminds them of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Says Moses, "For please ask regarding the first days … from the day that G'd created man on the earth, and from one end of the Heaven to the other end of the Heaven. Has there ever been anything like this great thing … has a people ever heard the voice of G'd speaking from the midst of the fire like you heard?" The Talmud (Chagigah 11a) explains that there is an additional hidden message in these verses. Just as we are encouraged to ask questions in order to better understand the truth of the Torah and its commandments, we must acknowledge that there are certain things that are beyond our comprehension, and therefore there is no point asking about them. Says the Talmud, these verses teach us that we should investigate and inquire about everything that happened from the first day of Creation till the end of days, and from one end of the world to the other. But what happened before Creation, and what will happen after, and what is going on outside our world in the known universe, this is beyond our comprehension.
Manual for daily life
The Torah is a manual for our daily life, from the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night, and for each and every day of the yearly cycle. It is our job and privilege to learn how to fulfill the will of G'd as commanded in the Torah. As we renew our acceptance of the Torah on the Festival of Shavuous we must focus on these issues. In this way, we will be able to accept and acquire the Torah for ourselves and to pass it on to future generations.
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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