Thursday, March 13, 2008

Question & Answer With Moshe David Tokayer - Trudging Through Abstruse Material

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

Our daily learning seder is made up of variety different kinds of seforim. Sometimes our neshomas immediately respond to a sefer, an idea, or concept and it seems as if the pages of the sefer glisten with Hashem's presence. At other times, it may feel like an onerous task to trudge through what we view as abstruse material.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that one must pause briefly in the midst of learning to re-attach oneself to Hashem; remembering that He has constricted His wisdom into the Torah and commanded us to learn it. I would imagine that while it may be easier for you to recall and apply this advice when learning Sfas Emes, it may prove to be more difficult when learning about ideas and concepts that seem removed from everyday life.

What thoughts or intentions do you try to keep in mind when learning material where Hashem's presence is not as immediately apparent?

Moshe David Tokayer answers:

I'd like to separate your question into two parts. First, many times we find ourselves learning subject material which is very difficult for us. How do we motivate ourselves? Secondly most of the Torah contains topics which are either not directly to related to our daily lives, such as the service in the Beis HaMikdash, or topics which are apparently not connected with anything holy, such civil law. What can we do to internalize the idea that these topics are as important and holy as holiest topics we've ever come across; that the presence of HaShem rests in civil law as well.

This question is very timely because we are about to begin reading Sefer Vayikra. Many people have told me that they have this very problem with studying the sacrifices and the laws of purity. They can't relate these laws to their lives and therefore cannot seem to imbue them with a whole lot of importance. Reviewing the weekly Torah reading becomes, at best, a chore that they accomplish only because of self-discipline.

For myself, I find that it is not difficult for me to learn subjects which are not directly related to my daily life. Just the opposite. I learnt Maseches Zevachim with the kind of excitement that comes from learning an esoteric discipline. That, coupled with the obvious importance to me of the Beis HaMikdash and its service were strong motivations for me.

There is no Talmud Bavli on Seder Zeraim (laws related to planting in the Israel) nor is there Talmud Bavli on Seder Taharos (laws related to purity) except for Maseches Nidda. One would think that the reason these sedorim have no Gemara on them is because they are not relevant to everyday law. However, the Beis HaMikdash service is also not relevant to everyday law and yet there is Talmud Bavli on Seder Kodshim! Chazal tell us that learning seder Kodshim is, in a way, as if we are actually performing the service of the Beis HaMikdash.

This is a clear example of Chazal's deep understanding of the effects of their learning. Reading arguments between Amoraim regarding the minutiae of sacrifice laws, one gets the feeling that they are about to bring the sacrifice. It seems that relevant to them! It seems to me that the difficulty in getting motivated about subjects that are not directly relevant to our daily lives lies in our lack of understanding of the effects of learning Torah. I find a good way to increase motivation for these types of subjects is to learn the last part (Shaar 4) of Nefesh HaChaim. Reb Chaim Volozhiner discusses the positive effects of learning Torah.

Although I do not find it difficult to get motivated about esoteric or exotic material, I do find it hard to get motivated about difficult material. It doesn't seem to matter whether the material is Gemara, Sfas Emes or anything else. The key, I find is to not allow myself to become overwhelmed. I prevent this by saying to myself that I cannot know anything without the help of HaShem. In this respect, how difficult it seems to me is really irrelevant. So, I say a brief prayer before starting and get involved. After a while I "get it." The key, as I said is to get started and then it is important to persevere. If you find yourself flagging in the middle, by all means, take a break and offer another prayer. As ASJ brought from the Ba'al Shem Tov, stopping to reflect is helpful. The Chiddushei HaRim, as well, says that stopping to regain perspective is an aspect of the angels running forward and then returning (ratzo vashov.) The Chiddushei HaRim explains that it is important to realize that our inspirations come from HaShem otherwise we are tempted towards arrogance. Stopping in the middle to gain some perspective - HaShem is helping us; we are standing before him - helps in this regard.

It's hard to describe the feeling of "getting it" but it's the same regardless of the subject material. It matters not whether it's a difficult Chiddushei HaRamban or a difficult Sfas Emes. It's obvious to me that I got it only with the help of the One above. Then I look back and ask myself in amazement, "How did that happen?!" It's a blessed feeling.

It's crucial afterwards to express gratitude to HaShem for giving us an understanding of His Torah. Expressing gratitude is the key to HaShem bringing more understanding like Chazal teach us, "One mitzvah draws another one." By doing one mitzvah, HaShem gives us more opportunity to do the mitzvah again. When we express gratitude, HaShem gives us additional opportunities to express more gratitude.


At March 13, 2008 at 10:07:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When we were toddlers and our parents started teaching us the alphabet/aleph-bet, we didn't spend too much time worrying about how relevant it was to us, even though it was pretty esoteric to us at the time. We learned it anyway, just because our parents wanted us to.
It's the same for us now learning difficult and seemingly "irrelevant" parts of Torah, except our "parent" is Avinu SheBashamayim; that is: G-d.


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