Monday, December 03, 2007

Question & Answer With A Talmid - Wisdom & Simplicity

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

The Tcheriner Rav once wrote, "Paradoxically, only by restraining the desire for wisdom and choosing to serve G-d with simplicity can one acquire the ability to grasp the perceptions that formerly remained beyond his ken."

In your opinion, what practical steps could a person take to implement this advice?

A Talmid answers:

My understanding is that "restraining the desire for wisdom" means refers to wanting to acquire Torah knowledge for intellectual reasons as opposed to a desire to do the will of Hashem, which would be simplicity. The wisdom of Torah, which is the true wisdom, is different than other wisdoms, as the posuk says (Tehilim 111, 10) רֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה יִרְאַת ד׳- the beginning of wisdom is the fear of Hashem. (Perhaps, the Tcheriner Rav also means that the reason the perceptions were beyond his ken is because he skipped the basics, which is "fear of Hashem". Serving Hashem with simplicity he will start from the beginning withרֵאשִׁית חָכְמָה יִרְאַת ד׳ and therefore will aquire that wisdom of "fear of Hashem".) The Mishna (Avos 3, 11) says: “all whose fear of Heaven precedes their wisdom, their wisdom will endure, and all whose wisdom precedes their fear of Heaven, their wisdom won’t endure”. The following Mishna says: “all whose actions are greater than their wisdom, their wisdom will endure, and all whose wisdom is greater than their actions, their wisdom won’t endure”. We see from here that wisdom is dependent on factors other than pure intellect.

The wording used in the Mishnayos above is אין חכמתו מתקיימת, which can mean that the wisdom doesn't stand; without other factors besides wisdom, the “wisdom” does not even begin to exist. Just gaining Torah knowledge with one’s own mental abilities won't necessarily get him to acquiring true wisdom. When one acts with simplicity, sincerely desiring to serve Hashem and learn His Torah, then he will receive Siyata D’Shmaya to do so. Remember, simplicity doesn't mean foolishness, as Reb Nachman points out.

Although one has to use his mental abilities as much as possible, one has to realize that it isn't just a mental exercise, and we are learning to do the will of Hashem, which requires simplicity. The first step, I believe, is to daven to Hashem in the same way one should for any other need. Daven to be able to arrive at the truth in Torah studies, as the Noam Elimelech writes in the very first part of Hanhogos Ha’Adam. If one approaches his studies with this attitude, he is definitely heading in the right direction. This is probably harder for someone with a brilliant mind to do, since it seems like he can learn difficult subjects, seemingly understanding it easily and enjoying the intellectual stimulation. However, he also has to realize that without Siyata D’Shmaya, he can’t achieve true wisdom. Our greatest Gedolim have always said that their success in learning Torah came about through pouring out their hearts to Hashem asking to be helped in their studies. The Netziv told Rav Shimon Shkop that he used to daven at kivrei tzadikim for help when he had trouble understanding difficult subjects.

This reminds me of a story concerning R' Pesach Pruskin, a rebbe of R' Moshe Feinstein. R' Pesach was a Mashgiach in a Yeshiva and was acknowledged as being a great Tzadik, and an expert in Mussar. However, although he applied himself diligently to learning, he was of only average intelligence when it came to learning Gemara. One day he was discussing a subject in Bava Kama with several others and he offered an explanation, which the others found to be very poor, causing at least one of them to smirk. R' Pesach felt very embarrassed and went into a private area and cried himself to sleep. In his sleep in was revealed to him that since he tried so hard to learn Gemara and was so sincere, he would be given Siyata D'Shmaya in his studies from now on. From then on, he was a new person; he excelled in his Gemara learning and went on to become a talmid of R' Chaim Brisker, becoming a brilliant scholor. There are many others that were not born geniuses, but went on to become great Talmidei Chachomim. This shows us that mental capacity alone is not enough for acquiring true wisdom.

Tanya (Chapter 18) says that the word חכמה stands for כח מה, acknowledging that we really don’t know anything; the more we “know” the more we realize that there is more to learn. Unfortunately, I have seen too many people giving shiurim, who are quite brilliant and "knowledgeable", but in the same breath as the wonderful chiddush they said, they will make fun of Tzadikim and will be quick to say, "look ________ (fill in the blank with a Tanna, Amora or Rishon) made a mistake because..." It doesn't even occur to them that perhaps they don't understand the matter at hand properly. They are so full of themselves, patting themselves on the back for their intellectual prowess, and forget that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of Hashem”. Likutei Mohoran (II, 12) says that some of the wickedest people became that way by trying to be too smart, as opposed to serving Hashem with simplicity.

We need to constantly be aware that we are trying to learn true wisdom, the Torah Hakedoshah, which cannot be approached as just another subject. We need to constantly pray to Hashem for help in understanding His Torah, and then we need to put in our greatest efforts to acquire Torah knowledge. No matter how hard we try, without help from Above, we can never acquire “true wisdom”.


At December 3, 2007 at 11:52:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good points. Pshitus and tmimus don't negate wisdom (chochmo). Rather they form a vessel to acquire true wisdom. We see it in the story of the Prostek in Sipurey Maysies.

Another good point is about thrust for wisdom for its own sake, i.e. when one doesn't desire Toryo because its dvar Hashem, but because of intellectual pursuit. This is a wrong intention.

Also, as we discussed here before several times, pshitus and tmimus don't at all mean a superficiality and lack of depth, like someone can mistakenly assume.

At December 3, 2007 at 11:53:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(I meant thirst for wisdom above).

At December 3, 2007 at 3:33:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for this helpful piece.

simplicity...with the (simple)intention of serving HaShem...




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