Changing the quality of my learning by renewing my commitment and reinvigorating my attitude
As I feel I could much improve in the area of limud haTorah these days, both quantitatively and qualitatively, I found it serendipitous that just this week I came across a gemara in Yevamos addressing the pasuk in Mishlei (27:19) that was central to what we discussed in this slot last week: “Kamayim hapanim lapanim, kein leiv ha’adam la’adam — As water reflects the face shown it, so too is the heart of one man to another.”
Rashi explains the pasuk as conveying an axiom of human relations: Our feelings toward another person are dictated by his feelings toward us. We reflect back to him the love, hatred, or other emotions we feel radiating from him toward us, which is how it is understood by the gemara in Yevamos (117a).
But in that same gemara, Rabi Yehudah says of this verse that “Hahu b’divrei Torah kesiv,” this is referring to words of Torah. Rashi explains that the extent to which you will succeed in Torah is commensurate with the heart that you invest in it.
This is an echo of a notion we find repeatedly in Chazal: Torah is a living, dynamic reality, and a Jew has an ongoing, symbiotic relationship with it, mirroring our own attitude. When we “smile” at it, by studying it time after time and toiling to understand it, it reciprocates by doing everything it can to ensure our success. But if we neglect it, it takes that rejection to heart and we suffer for it.
At a siyum, we speak directly to the Torah we’ve learned in the second person and say, “Hadran alach, v’hadrach alan — We will return to you, reviewing your words and delighting in them, and you will return to us.”
But Torah doesn’t just return to us, it actually works on our behalf. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 99b) states that “a person toils in Torah here and it toils for him elsewhere.” Rashi explains: “The Torah seeks him out, and asks its Owner to share with him the reasonings and orderings of Torah, all because he’s busy plumbing its depths.”
But it’s not all sweetness and light. There’s a downside to the symbiosis too. The Torah speaks to us directly, too, and says (Yerushalmi Berachos 9:5) “Yom ta’azveini, yomayim a’azveka — If you leave me for a day, I’ll forsake you for two.” Some might see in those words an allusion to the daf yomi schedule, where skipping a day means the next day you’re two blatt behind.
But long before the advent of the Daf, the Yerushalmi explained that the Torah is akin to a woman whose suitor has lost interest, causing her also to begin looking elsewhere for a more compatible mate. When we are lethargic about learning Torah, it simply goes elsewhere, in search of someone who shows more interest in a relationship with it.
Rav Meir Simchah HaCohen, rav of Dvinsk and author of the Ohr Somayach, was once learning with a chavrusa when the latter asked him a question in the topic they were studying. He replied that he’d written about this question 35 years earlier and proceeded to take an ancient-looking notebook off the shelf and hand it to his chavrusa, and then began reciting verbatim what he’d written there. Such was Rav Meir Simchah’s power of recall.
A little while later, a communal leader entered the room to consult with the Rav. Rav Meir Simchah took his holy finger and placed it on the spot in Rashi that he and his chavrusa were then up to, and began speaking with his visitor. Every so often during the conversation, Rav Meir Simchah glanced down at where his finger was touching the page, as if to remember where they were holding.
His chavrusa summoned the courage to wonder out loud, “I don’t understand. Just a bit earlier, I was privileged to see the incomparable memory with which the Rav is blessed. Why the need to point to where we’re up to?” At that, the Ohr Somayach answered in an emotion-choked voice, “Our heiligeh Chazal taught in Berachos (5a) that the pasuk in Mishlei stating, ‘If you divert your eyes from it, it’s gone’ refers to Torah. How, then, is it possible, for even a moment, to lose track of where we’re holding?”
That’s how sensitive Torah is to our attentiveness to it. And that’s how careful a great Jew— to whom a mutually intimate, loyal relationship with Torah meant everything — was about showing it such attentiveness.
So, our symbiotic relationship with Torah is complex, and with our success in learning dependent on it, the stakes are high. But the good news is that we hold the controls in our hands.
Just as the reciprocity principle of kamayim hapanim in interpersonal relationships means I can have considerable input into my fellow’s attitudes just by altering my own, so can I change the quality of my learning — my comprehension and retention and overall success at it — by renewing my commitment and reinvigorating my attitude.
It’s a timely thought, too, during these days when recommitment to Torah is the call of the hour. One of the reasons the Gemara (Bava Basra 121b) gives for why 15 Av was a great Yom Tov, alongside Yom HaKippurim, is that on that day, the woodchoppers who supplied the firewood needs of the Mizbeiach completed their work.
Rabbeinu Gershom explains that with their tiring, time-consuming work done, they were able to resume their learning. It’s amazing to contemplate that the return to the beis medrash of the presumably small number of people tasked with chopping this wood was reason enough for Tu B’Av to be regarded as a nationwide day of joy on par with Yom Kippur.
The Torah isn’t only likened to water, but to fire too. And the Gemara there adds that at this time of year, as the nights grow ever so slowly longer, there’s more time to devote to learning. And those woodchoppers, whose efforts ensured there would be sufficient fuel to keep the perpetually burning fires of the outer Altar going all night long, would now get to stoke their own internal ones, too.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 821. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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