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Food for Thought

Eytan Kobre

Serious ruchniyus is incompatible with serious gashmiyus

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

In a column a little over two years ago, I shared my view that the solution to the spiraling consumerism and runaway material extravagance afflicting frum life will not be found in community-wide measures dictated by its leadership.  It requires individuals and families to decide to break free of the indulgent mindset and embrace a deeper, spiritually oriented way of living.

I also suggested that Talmud Torah — more specifically, amalah shel Torah — could play a pivotal role in that process. The ideal of Talmud Torah involves becoming not merely occupied but preoccupied in deed and thought with Torah. There’s nothing like ongoing, focused involvement with G-d’s Will as expressed in His Word to help a person lose interest in the cheap desires to which our lower selves are drawn.

The Chazon Ish often described in lyrical terms the power of toil in Torah and its resultant joy as antidotes to materialism. In Emunah U’Bitachon (3:7), he writes: “Toil in Torah has the ability to purify the soul, to render it sensitive and lustrous such that it draws nigh the pleasant feeling of purity and sanctity, and to implant deeply in one’s heart a visceral disgust with meaningless pleasures.”  In one of his many letters of encouragement to young Torah students he writes (Koveitz Igros 1:9): “Sweet things… cannot compete with the rarified pleasure to be derived from toiling for wisdom, whereby man’s soul is lifted above the worldly din to the highest heavens, where it delights in the radiance of the supernal wisdom.”

But even if a large-scale return to Torah study as it was meant to be can help transform attitudes and values vis-?-vis materialism, how would this work its effects upon women, for whom intensive Torah study of this sort isn’t intended to be a prime focus?  I conjectured that for many, the example set by husbands and fathers in opting for the real over the contrived and the deep over the shallow would elicit strong feelings of admiration and support from their spouses and families, who would follow suit in moderating their lifestyles.

But there’s more to it. The Brisker Rav states in the name of his great father, Rav Chaim, that even though women are exempt from the mitzvah of Torah study, they nevertheless recite birchos haTorah each morning (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 47:14) because those aren’t fore-blessings for the mitzvah; rather, it is the cheftza, the entity of Torah that requires a brachah, and both men and women are connected to that entity.

When a Jewish home revolves around the study of Torah, a connection is forged for all, male and female alike, to the cheftza of Torah. It is as if a great ball of fire — aish das — is revolving at the center of that home, generating light and warmth and higher, purer aspirations, and slowly, it becomes a different sort of home.

For some, drawing a causal connection between materialism and Torah study might seem strange. But I’m reminded of the anecdote told by long-time rav and mekarev Rabbi Yaakov Haber about his initial foray into kiruv, during his years in kollel in Yerushalayim. He’d decided to form a study group for local Sephardic Jews and consulted Rabbi Uri Zohar on what to teach them. The latter suggested teaching Bava Kamma, which led Rabbi Haber to respond, “Bava Kamma? Reb Uri, you just don’t understand kiruv.” To which the kiruv legend replied, “No, Reb Yaakov, you don’t understand the power of Torah.”

The Shabbos I spent at the Dirshu convention a few months ago was a powerful confirmation of the transformative possibilities of intensive Torah study. I’ve attended many weekends promoting good causes and attracting noble-minded participants.

But all too often, a weekend’s themes and goals can be at cross-purposes with other things happening there. On the one hand, people are there hoping to grow Jewishly through an offering of wonderful shiurim given by inspiring presenters. Unfortunately, however, the impact of those lectures can be undermined by what’s taking place before, after, and in between them.

The mixing of genders in a Shabbos atmosphere where people with widely varying notions of acceptable dress are outfitted to the nines just isn’t spiritually healthy for anyone. Neither is the marathon of gastronomic excess in which the already-lavish meals are supplemented by (in chronological order) an Erev Shabbos Toameha, a post-seudah dessert table, a late-night oneg, a pre-seudah kiddush smorgasbord, a 24-hour tea room, and a can-you-top-this Melaveh Malkah. No one will leave hungry from the next morning’s breakfast either.

Well-intentioned people invest a lot of effort and expense to make these weekends springboards for spiritual growth, which is also why people attend them. But the simple truth is that serious ruchniyus isn’t compatible with serious gashmiyus. Yet, that is the very underlying contradiction running throughout, which prevents these events from achieving their potential and wielding the influence they ought to have.

Dirshu offered a Shabbos experience that avoided both of these pitfalls. There were dining rooms designated for men-only and women-only meals, but there was another option too. Entering the ballroom on Friday evening, my wife and I beheld a singular sight: row upon row of beautifully set “tables for two,” enabling each of the hundreds of couples in attendance to enjoy their own semi-private seudas Shabbos.  Throughout the weekend the food was plentiful and delicious, but it was far from a nonstop fress-fest.

Why the Dirshu difference? Over that Shabbos, I sensed it was because limud haTorah has come to play an unusually central role in the lives of those who were there – men and women alike. And when that happens, life priorities change, with the material taking a back seat to the spiritual, and people develop more fine-tuned sensitivity to values like tzniyus and moderation.

A single, unifying ideal seemed to reign palpably in the conference rooms and the dining halls, in the tea room, and the beis medrash: Torah. Only Torah. Learning it, mastering it, finding fulfillment through it –and supporting those who do.  And that can make all the difference.

Boro Park businessman Motty Gross, a participant in several intensive Dirshu testing programs, whom I interviewed at the weekend, seemed to speak for many who were there when he told me:

It’s a very high level of ameilus, and when you sweat over something, you really become attached to it. I’ve got to tell you, nowadays what’s on top of my mind is my learning schedule, not my business. It can be crazy hours. If I’m stuck on a gemara, I can be up until three in the morning. I can now sit for hours, and I was never able to. You enjoy spending time with yourself, you don’t even need a chavrusa. The goal in front of you creates such a forceful drive — but only if you value the goal. It’s limud, chazarah, bechinah — and then, simchah. That’s how you feel the satisfaction.

And slowly, a lot of petty things become irrelevant. You feel elevated, you speak in a different tone, more refined.  You appreciate your family more, you appreciate the people that support you.

The learning elevates everything, and it has a very strong impact on lifestyle. Among balabatim, there’s a wide spectrum of how people make simchahs, where they go on vacation and spend summers, etc., and all those take a new form because you look at yourself differently. I’m not a balabos who has an hour to learn daily and has to fit that into his otherwise not-so-Torahdig day. I’m a ben Torah who still has to make a parnassah.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 756. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at

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