Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - How To Approach Learning Torah
A Simple Jew asks:
Opening up a sefer before me, I unfortunately sometimes take the "checklist" approach to my daily learning seder. I am mindful of what I need to accomplish each day, and occasionally I rush through my learning so I can check each sefer off in my mental task list.
With the recent realization that perhaps my learning has not had the impact I imagined it to, I am attempting to pause for a few moments before I open each sefer. During these moments I attempt to remember a teaching I first heard in Rabbi Tal Zwecker's audio shiur on Jewish meditation. Rabbi Zwecker, citing a teaching from Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, explained that when one sits down to learn Torah he must remember that he is making himself into a vessel to hold Hashem's light here in the physical world. I try to visualize this and also remember the Baal Shem Tov's teaching that one must pause briefly in the midst of learning to re-attach oneself to Hashem; remembering that He has constricted His wisdom into his holy Torah and commanded us to learn it.
In our private e-mail correspondence, I remarked that my learning seems to be superficial at times, while you, on the other hand, tend to explore the larger picture and are better able to put ideas and personalities into greater context. My question to you is what approach do you take when opening a sefer to learn Torah?
Chabakuk Elisha answers:
Gee, I don't know that I have a planned approach. I guess that there are three things that I try to keep in mind:
1. When learning Torah, it's important that we approach it with the simple focus that we be a vessel for truth – therefore, we must try to suspend our preconceived notions, lest they get in the way of that truth. Sadly, it isn't uncommon for us to open a sefer, and rather than letting the sefer speak to us we impose our own ideas on the sefer. It is obviously wise to keep this in mind and avoid it to the best of our ability
2. We are advised to look for subtlety and nuance. This can be a challenge, especially with the busy lives we live, but when we look for subtle themes and nuanced ideas, we find that a sefer becomes more alive. This is not really surprising, since real people and real ideas are often complex: They're subtle. They're nuanced. As a result, when finding the subtle nuances in a sefer it becomes more alive – and approaching it with this in mind helps us grasp far more than a superficial reading would.
3. I'll tell you, I get bored easily – if a book or sefer doesn't grab me quickly, I fade away; before I know it I'm reading words and sounds and looking at the patterns that the letters make on the page without any comprehension. So, basically as a survival technique I often need to find a way to care about the book first – and once I care about it personally, I can convince myself that the contents of the book are important for me to understand. Therefore, I'll become interested in the author, in the time-period, in the specific subject matter, and otherwise try to care about the book.
For example, long, long ago someone gave me Rabbi Steinsaltz's "The Thirteen Petalled Rose". I started it once, but I didn't get very far; so it sits, collecting dust, where it has sat for many years. It's not that I had anything against the book, it's just that nothing compelled me to keep at it. But I recently read "On The Road With Rabbi Steinsaltz" (to my great enjoyment) and I plan to revisit "The Thirteen Petalled Rose," and this time, I'm sure I'll get further along. Similarly, when learning Gemora, it becomes more alive when we know something about the figures involved – who they were and what happened in their lives – this makes it so much more relevant, and I find this to be the case for most books I read.
I hope it helps!