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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shelach: Not like a headless chicken
The next thing mentioned in the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah, is to "listen and add". Even if someone is a great Torah scholar, if he is not ready to add to his Torah knowledge, he loses his right to live. Temporary movements of a headless chicken are only caused by the nerves of a dead body. "It is not the snake that kills but the sin that kills." Through the sins of the Jewish people the Temple had become devoid of its holiness. Just as we believe that G'd will resurrect the physical dead in due time, so it is possible for the sinner to repent and do teshuvah and thereby merit immediate spiritual resurrection. One must train oneself to be able to add and build further based upon what one has heard and absorbed. The students of the Yeshiva in Kelm were known for their diligence, both in their Torah study and in refining their character. The three components of "listening and adding" will enable us to truly acquire Torah knowledge and be part of the eternal chain of the transmission from Sinai.
Listen and add
The next thing mentioned in the Mishnah, that one needs to acquire Torah, is to "listen and add". As many of the other things, this requirement entails several components. The commentaries explain that the one who wants to truly acquire Torah must constantly seek to add to his learning and not be complacent with what he has learned already. Even if one has studied a lot and listened to many lectures, there is always more to learn to add to one's knowledge of Torah. Torah is different than any other wisdom. Other kinds of wisdom can enhance our quality of life, and even our longevity. But Torah is life itself. It guides every part of our entire existence. As we say every night in the blessing before Shema, "When we lay down and we get up, we will discuss Your decrees, and we will rejoice with the words of Your Torah … for they are our life … and we will think about them day and night."
Lose right to live
Earlier in Pirkei Avos (1:13), Hillel, who was famous for his kindness, has some very harsh words for someone who does not add to his Torah studies. According to Rabbeinu Yonah, Hillel actually said that even if someone is a great Torah scholar, if he is not ready to add to his Torah knowledge, he loses his right to live.
Obviously, this does not mean that someone who does not study Torah will pass away immediately. However, since Torah is our life, existence without Torah is spiritual death. As the Talmud (Berachos 18b) says, "Evildoers are considered dead even during their lifetime." I once heard that this is comparable to beheaded chickens. They will run around for a little while, and if someone does not know any better they appear to be very alive. But the one who knows the truth is aware that temporary movements of a headless chicken are only caused by the nerves of a dead body. Similarly, there are plenty of people who walk around and function without studying Torah and keeping the commandments. But spiritually they are not alive.
At the time of Creation, G'd gave Adam and Eve one commandment and instructed them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. G'd said (Bereishis 2:17): "For on the day you eat of it you shall surely die." Although Adam and Eve brought death upon themselves by this transgression, this did not take effect immediately. But on a spiritual level, they brought upon themselves an immediate aspect of death. This corresponds to what it says in the Midrash Rabbah (Shemos 3:12): "It is not the snake that kills but the sin that kills" (see also Talmud (Berachos 33a). Spiritually, part of the person's soul dies every time he sins, and eventually all that is left for the snake to do is to take his physical life. No one ever died without some connection to sin. The Talmud (Shabbos 55b) relates that there were four people (Benjamin the son of Jacob, Amram the father of Moses, Yishai the father of David, and Kilav the son of David) who did not die because of their own sins but due to the sin of Adam and Eve.
Destruction of the Temple
The Zohar (Noah 73b) explains that every person is connected to the spiritual world above through his soul. And when someone sins, he affects this connection negatively. Rabbi Chaim Valozhiner (Nefesh HaChaim 1:4) explains that this was how the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. For through the sins of the Jewish people the Temple had become devoid of its holiness and had been turned into an empty shell without the Divine presence. Such a shell, anyone could destroy.
However, just as we believe that G'd will resurrect the physical dead in due time, so it is possible for the sinner to repent and do teshuvah and thereby merit immediate spiritual resurrection. Rabbi Yonathan Eibeschutz (Yaaros Devash 1:1) explains that this is alluded to in our prayer in the second blessing of Shemona Esrei that deals with resurrection.
Another component of "listening and adding", that is needed to acquire Torah, is when one studies under a mentor and listens to what he has to say. One must train oneself to be able to add and build further based upon what one has heard and absorbed. As King Solomon says (Mishlei 1:8): "The intelligent shall listen and add knowledge, and the wise shall acquire understanding." Rashi explains that this means that the one who studies Torah properly will eventually reach a level where he will be able to compare one situation to another. The Rambam (Laws of Torah Study 1:11) actually defines the study of Talmud as having the ability and understanding to know when to differentiate between situations and when to compare them. Only someone who has reached this level may rule what is permissible and what is prohibited (see also Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 248:4). It is amazing to see how the great halachic authorities, right up to our times, have the insight to rule even on modern-day inventions based on the Talmud and its commentaries. With their keen analytical understanding, they are able to "listen" to the words of earlier sages and add their rulings to the eternal chain of Torah.
A third component of "listening and adding" applies to study partners. Each of them must be respectful of their partner, and be ready to listen to what he has to say, and only, when he is finished, add his own comment. The students of the Yeshiva in Kelm were known for their diligence, both in their Torah study and in refining their character. When two students conversed, their custom was that if one was talking the other would not respond until he had asked him if he was finished. In this way they grew not only in their character building, but also in their actual comprehension of what they studied.
To summarize: the three components of "listening and adding" are: (1) we must always be eager to add to our Torah knowledge; (2) we must strive to reach a level where we can add to what we have heard from others and apply it in the appropriate situations; and (3) we must be respectful and ready to listen to others before we add our personal comments. These three components will enable us to truly acquire Torah knowledge and be part of the eternal chain of the transmission from Sinai.
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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