Grab And Eat
Excerpt from "Lights on the Path" by Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shechter:
How often instead of devoting ourselves to spiritual matters, we find ourselves offering an excuse, "Not just now. I'm too busy, too disorganized. When things settle down, then I'll get to it and even make up for lost time."
This is a big mistake! Chazal said, "This world is like a wedding banquet - grab and eat!" We must never wait for a "better time" to fulfill our spiritual obligations, but must grab whatever we can now, even in the middle of our disorganized lives, because if we wait until everything "settles down," we lose a great deal in the meantime. We have to recall this countless times. Life has its cycles. Sometimes things go our way and sometimes not. We must be able to serve G-d in all situations, even when times are difficult.
The mishnah in Pirkei Avos says, "Don't say, 'I will study when I have time.'" The Kotzker Rebbe commented on this, "Perhaps this is the very thing that G-d wants from you, to study when you do not have the time."
I would like to offer the following piece of advice: Grab whatever you can without worrying about the outcome. You will soon see that you gained much more in the moments when you mind was unsettled, than in the times you were calm. This is alluded to in another mishnah: "Whoever fulfills the Torah in poverty, will ultimately fulfill it in wealth." Precisely by studying Torah in the "poor" times, when things are not going well, we will eventually come to study it amidst "riches" - when things will go very well. For in this world, the main time to serve G-d is when times are difficult.
Where to Begin?
The question then become, where do we begin? How do we make the best use of our time? One answer is to always have available basic books of Judaism, simply written, but of fundamental importance, such as the Aruch HaShulchan, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Mishnayos, or Ein Yaakov. We can use them to fill up all the "cracks" in our busy day, and read them when we are unable to concentrate or something deeper, such as during a lunch break, while standing in a bank line, or waiting for a bus. Nor do we have to limit ourselves to only one sefer during these moments. We can have one text for longer breaks, another for shorter ones. It is amazing how much Torah can be learned during these unstructured times - often more than we learn during our structured periods.
Psalms All Day
I heard of one man who worked behind am information desk. Day to day, he was busy answering people's questions. But in between, he would recite a few Psalms. He finished the entire book of Psalms every day, and sometimes even twice a day!
I heard of another man in America who would ride a train two hours to work each morning, and then again coming home in the evening. He carried a small volume of the Gemara with him, and would learn one side of a page going, and the other side coming home. At the end of seven years, he completed the entire Talmud and understood it well!
However, there are a number of obstacles that we must overcome if we want to succeed in this type of study. For instance, when we start learning even the most basic texts, we soon come to topics that are difficult to understand, such as the Mishnayos of tractate Kelayim, or the halachos of writing tefillin in the Shulchan Aruch. These threaten to bog us down. The best thing is to pass over them quickly, even without full comprehension. Soon, we will come to clear passages that we also need to know, and can continue as before. Later, when we finish the entire text and start again from the beginning, we can try to tackle the difficult subjects. Frustrating as reading the texts may be, it too is part of the mitzvah of toiling at Torah. However, under no circumstances should we stop learning because the material has become too difficult.
Watch Every Second
In any event, until we can discover the method of Torah study that is best for us, we must be careful not to waste a moment. Until G-d opens our hearts as to what and how we should study, we must grab whatever we can, even in an unstructured way, because the sin of wasting time from Torah is very grave, while the reward for Torah study is greater than all the other mitzvos.
Many people become so confused by the various approaches to Torah study that they do not know what to do or where to begin. Even after committing themselves to one approach, they still have doubts. They start to learn Gemara, then they think it would be better to learn Mishnayos. They study Mishnayos and worry about Halacha. What about Chumash with Rashi? Perhaps they should drop everything and start learning Daf Yomi. They start learning halachos of kashrus and end up worrying about those of Shabbos. And so on and so on...
Once again, the best advice is to commit oneself to studying without any program at all. To learn a lot of whatever one can, and a proper study program will soon become apparent.
The bottom line is: don't busy yourself with making plans to learn, just sit and learn. The proper balance will emerge by itself.