Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - How To Approach Learning Mishnayos & Gemara

A Simple Jew asks:

Tehillim 119:11 says, בְּלִבִּי, צָפַנְתִּי אִמְרָתֶךָ - לְמַעַן, לֹא אֶחֱטָא-לָךְ ("In my heart I have stored Your word, in order that I should not sin against You.") This means that it should be evident through our actions that the Torah we learn each day is always in the forefront of our mind.

How are you able to ensure that the Mishnayos and Gemara that you learn do not become accumulated knowledge but actually turn into practical knowledge that you draw from in the course of your day?

Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:

Torah is the expressed Will of Hashem; it is our primary interface with Him, how we come to understand what He wants from us and for His world, and how we can fulfill His Will and thereby our purpose in this world. What could be a greater cause for true joy than knowing that Hashem has empowered you to do exactly what you are meant to do, that, through His Torah, you are being given the precise information you need to uphold your responsibility here?

We believe that the Written Torah was given alongside a precise tradition of how to understand it that was passed down in an oral form from Moshe Rabbenu to Yehoshua, and from teacher to student for 1500 years, before it was officially canonized in written form by Rabbenu HaKadosh, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi as what we know today as the Mishna (with differing versions compiled in the Baraisa and Tosefta by Rabbi Chiya and Bar Kapara). It has been in written form, albeit in a very cryptic, code-like format, since the 3rd century CE. Because of its mnemonic form, it is like a zip file that is unzipped in the transcript of all the discussions that took place in the various batei midrash in Israel and Babylonia until the 9th century CE--otherwise known as the Gemara.

To learn Mishna and Gemara is to address the basis of Judaism itself, an understanding of G-d's Will, in order that we may fulfill it, come closer to Him and thereby rectify the world. In a practical sense, study of these makes possible a real and substantive understanding of the halacha. Without this component, halacha looks like a set of do's and don'ts in bullet point form, and distances the learner from his sense of a connection to G-d's Will. This, I believe, is a primary reason why Reb Noson Sternhartz z"l composed Likutei Halachos, an encyclopedic compendium of, essentially, the entire Shulchan Aruch shown through the prism of the inner dimension of Torah, namely, Midrash, Kabbalah, the writings of the Ari z"l.

All 613 mitzvos have their "halachic" and "kabbalistic" components, analogous to a body and soul. Each needs the other. However, in a person's pursuit of Jewish growth, the "body" of Torah, its revealed aspect--especially Mishna and Gemara--is sometimes looked upon as dry information, where as the mystical elements of Torah resemble spirituality much more. This is a mistake; you can't have a body without a soul nor a soul without a body. Note that Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Beis Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch (as well as many more important works) was both a halachist and a kabbalist, a student of the Ari z"l, who besides being the greatest kabbalist of all time was also a gigantic talmid chacham, a student of Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, the Shita Mekubetzes.

Studying and completing the Mishna gives the learner the ability to see the entirety of Torah she'b'al peh, the Oral Torah that was handed down from Moshe Rabbenu onwards. The Ba'al HaTanya, in his treatment of Hilchos Talmud Torah, notes how the study of Mishna can create a instant connection between one's intellect and the revealed Will of Hashem via the statements of the Tannaim. Rebbe Nachman illuminates yet another aspect of this connection, namely, that by studying the words of the Tannaim, one also connects to the Tanna himself, which, in an overarching sense, is a connection to the paradigm of tzaddik. "And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant" Not only is the Written Word of Hashem critical to our life as Jews, but also the tradition we have received from our Sages regarding the true meaning of that Written Word. We can do this by learning the Written and Oral Torahs.

At the end of Likutei Moharan Tinyana 25, the Rebbe speaks of the importance of turning Torah into tefillah, meaning, taking something that one has learned and davening to Hashem to be able to understand the information, internalize it, and fulfill it in whatever manner possible. This simple practice can breathe life into one's learning of revealed Torah. Try it!


At August 4, 2009 at 8:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

respectfully: to turn reb nachman's teachings into prayers can mean that these teachings become devotions for us...they become tefilos which help to open our hearts to HaShem.


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