Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Sivan 5761 - June 6, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Learning Torah: Easy Come, Easy Go

by Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

The Western World's enthusiasm for using educational software has been steadily declining. A research study reached the conclusion that the millions of dollars invested annually in introducing educational software throughout the U.S.A. are causing more damage than good to American students. This research was carried out by the Educational Testing Service among fourteen thousand students from fourth to eighth grades. The following surprising fact came to light: the more time students spent using computers for their studies the lower their marks were in school! "Sitting opposite the computer usually results in the children soon playing with games instead of studying," said Harold Wilensky, one of the survey's experts.

There is actually a more basic reason: "Using computers has created a new `pushbutton' generation unable to think independently," claims Jean Helly, an educational psychologist from Colorado, in her book Communication Failure. She believes that computers cause damage to the body, to the soul, and to social development. "We are raising a generation of children with alarming educational problems, children who cannot sit quietly and organize their own thoughts."

Belgian teachers demanded to stop handing out homework to students. Their reason: students are finding the answers to their questions through the Internet. After obtaining the answers they transfer them quickly from one to another through email. The teachers claim the same homework that in the past demanded hours of work to complete can now be finished within minutes. You just have to find the answer patiently waiting for you somewhere on the World Wide Web.

These research projects point to one of the modern age's worst maladies, a fundamental and comprehensive problem with implications affecting all areas of life. These disorders are above and beyond the other damage caused by the computer and the Internet. Furthermore it is well known that the drawbacks are not just the loss of motivation to independent thought or intellectual efforts, but also that these new things promote violence and indescribable immorality.

The twentieth century stands out in man's ceaseless race to improve his quality of life. The best minds in the world are continuously working at developing new devices and means to save man from any physical effort whatsoever. Daily activities which required many hours of hard work in the past are now accomplished by simply pressing a button.

This concerns not only physical labor but also routine and elementary intellectual activities. Take for instance basic arithmetic. The pocket calculator has become an accessible and inexpensive tool used by every child. One can even encounter graduates of the computer generation unable to do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with a pen and paper. They never needed to know how since the calculator was at their every beck and call.

The easy life in modern school education has additional aspects. Preparing homework, writing research works for high schools and colleges, and essays on almost any topic, have become increasingly easier thanks to various written and electronic educational aids, encyclopedias, biographical and geographic dictionaries, compilations of quotations, and the like. Everyone realizes that handing in a written work crammed with extensive quotes and detailed sources neither attests to a person's comprehensive knowledge nor to his proficiency in that subject matter. He cannot even pride himself in the amount of work he invested in looking up these quotes and references. A wealth of information is at everyone's fingertips. It is rare to see work in which independent analysis and real intellectual effort was undertaken. The easy availability of information and the ability to make use of another's labor ruins all personal motivation. After all, why should someone work hard when he can produce the same work or even better in a snap?

Like in many additional areas of life, these modern era influences have penetrated the lives of the Torah- observant too. Lately more and more study aids of every conceivable type associated with Torah study have become widespread. Pamphlets, books, illustrated material, computer programs and CD-ROM disks, intended for all ages, classes of people, and various levels of Torah knowledge, have gained tremendous popularity.

There is, of course, in all this a positive aspect of intensifying Torah study, and it certainly shows our ardent desire to do everything we can to spread Torah knowledge to as many people as we can. We cannot, however, overlook the fact that the general atmosphere in the race to produce these educational innovations shows a certain degree of covert desire to "save" people from toiling over their Torah study.

We always had literature, in one way or another, that helped people in their Torah studies. This is nothing new. The difference is that in the past most people of any accomplishment were embarrassed to use them since they knew that such use would label them beginners. People were eager to reach a stage in which they could study gemora, Rishonim and poskim independently, like the talmidei chachomim who are familiar with the Torah's treasures.

Today, in a generation with more than its share of lightheadedness and haughtiness, many have lost their motivation and aspiration to engage in intensive research, in putting sincere efforts into their studies, as our fathers have studied ever since the Torah was given to us on Mount Sinai. Seeing a Jew laboring over understanding a daf gemora, or toiling to comprehend a complex halocho of the Rambam, or looking into a teshuvos Noda BeYehudah without any assistance from other books and without using a computer, may soon become a scene found only in history books. "Yes, that is the way our venerable grandfather once-upon-a-time studied Torah," Jews will nostalgically say about the not-so-distant past, "but today things are much easier, so why should we knock ourselves out?"

A rosh yeshiva from America said in a speech delivered at an Agudath Yisrael of America Annual Convention: "A while ago I happened to have visited a certain city in America. I called upon a local rav at his home and found him engrossed in looking at his computer screen. That rav told me: `Take a look! Today everyone can be a gaon. All one needs to do is to press a few keys on the keyboard and everything is revealed: explanations to sugyos, extensive references, halachic teshuvos -- in short, today everyone can be a gaon!'

"I answered: `On the contrary, if everyone studies in such a way we will not have even one gaon.' "

Indeed the abundance of study aids creates the illusion that to labor day and night over one's studies is no longer necessary. It is superfluous to study as is common in the yeshivos kedoshos and among Torah scholars throughout. There are modern "shortcuts." We can easily create "virtual geniuses," instant lamdonus and bekiyus, without devoting much time to it. The truth is that these delusions can produce only virtual talmidei chachomim and imaginary scholars.

It seems that the trend itself indicates some sort of basic defect and distortion of values. We are adopting housewives' attitudes and are transferring them to the area of Torah study. Women worldwide sincerely thank the miracles of modern technology for the invention of such appliances as the washing machine. This electric appliance has freed them from the tiresome hand washing of the family's dirty clothes. People just want to try to make Torah study a little easier too.

But laboring over Torah is not just something that by chance got attached to old generation's mitzvah of Torah study. It is not something we should try to relieve ourselves from like all other bothersome work. Laboring over Torah is not a punishment. It is not a burdensome necessity. We should not picture it as a heavy load that we must do our best to be rid of, chas vesholom. The tradition we have received from our Torah Sages is that amal haTorah is the foundation of acquiring knowledge of Torah -- each person according to his individual level, and only through such intensive study will a person be zocheh to really know Torah. That is the one and only way his mind will become attuned to the Torah's sechel, and will eventually feel genuine pleasure and satisfaction, the simchah in Torah study.

The Torah's main segulah of elevating a person to realize his obligations in life is attained by laboring over Torah. The more a person increases his efforts, the more he is severing the yetzer's ropes and is despising life's vain pleasures. His nefesh yearns for feelings of holiness, delighting in wisdom, and the sweetness of the heart's purity" (Igros Chazon Ish, 1:37). "All of the segulos of Torah study involve laboring over Torah study. Indeed after toiling over Torah a new gate of radiance is opened in which a person's intelligence takes endless pleasure" (ibid., 1:2).

During a siyum on a gemora we say the tefilloh: "We labor and receive reward while they labor and do not receive reward." The Chofetz Chaim explains that in all worldly matters a person is paid only for results and tangible achievements. Studying Torah is different. When we study Torah we are rewarded for our efforts themselves even if we are unsuccessful in understanding correctly the subject or if we have not understood it as deeply as we aspired. Even more so -- as the gedolei Torah have guided us -- without laboring over Torah, the Torah we study cannot remain with us. There is no way of bypassing amal haTorah; there are no shortcuts. This is like the famous saying: "Easy come, easy go."

Maran the Rosh Yeshiva shlita once wrote that a certain sefer intended as an aid for students was totally unacceptable. Besides the problem involved of that specific work, he wrote, we must in general warn about the spreading trend of wanting to "save" us from laboring over the Torah. ". . . because people have lately begun publishing seforim to aid Torah study. The truth is, however, not like that. On the contrary, Torah knowledge is acquired through laboring over it. Anyone who wants to toil and put in effort is [Divinely] promised to succeed" (a letter dated 26 Tishrei, 5751, cited in Michtovim Uma'amorim, 5:417).

There are cases of those who are real beginners and need such aids, such as baalei teshuvah who have, with Hashem's help, increased tremendously, or for individuals suffering from learning difficulties, etc. The gedolei hador are the ones to decide whether to allow such books, and when and to what degree there is a situation of "It is a time to act for [for Hashem]" (Tehillim 119:126).

The main point is that those using such aids must strive for more. They must be afraid that perhaps they will, choliloh, be nothing more than "beginners" for their whole life. They must long for the moment when they will be able to labor over the Torah, intensely studying it, as the Jewish Nation has always done.

As previously mentioned, laboring over Torah is not a punishment, a heavy load, or an oppressive yoke, that we must relieve ourselves of and try to find a way to free ourselves from. On the contrary, laboring over Torah is an essential condition for acquiring Torah knowledge. We are not referring only to bnei Torah but also to baalei batim. Just as every Jew is commanded to study Torah so is he commanded to toil over his Torah study -- each person according to his level and possibilities.

Maran the Rosh Yeshiva shlita once said about this that "the world exists because of laboring over Torah, and the world exists also in the zechus of a baal habayis exerting himself with mesirus nefesh and sweating to understand a pshat in the gemora. He contributes to the creation's existence through that daily hour of toiling and exerting himself over the Torah."

Sometimes when dealing with real beginners the best way is to use tools that will assist them until they improve their abilities and can join all the others who study Torah in the regular way. Nonetheless, we must realize this is not the lechatchilah way of studying Torah, and their pure aspirations must be guided to eventually study as their ancestors did.

This topic has an additional negative aspect. The deluge of various study aids has made the Torah accessible to those who strive to transform the Living Torah into a venomous poison.

In the past we suffered from followers of the Enlightenment Movement who had once studied in yeshivos and later strayed from the way. Afterwards they used what they remembered of Torah to infect Klal Yisroel. In the last generation in which there is widespread ignorance of the Torah we have been saved from this particular misery. A graduate of the Israeli education system does not know how to open a gemora or from where to start reading. Even if they want to extract out-of-context quotes to make the Torah- observant more despised by the general population they have a hard time doing so. If there are reports of militant secular Jews who organize groups for studying "Jewish literature" with the intent to pervert our Torah, this stems, among the rest, from the promise to its participants by the organizers of an easy and speedy comprehension. This is, of course, possible because of the development of study aids.

We find in the gemora (Yoma 19a) a need to keep the kohen godol especially busy during his preparations for Yom Kippur "since if he is a Tzeduki he will abandon it." Rashi (s.v. alomoh lo) explains: "We purposely over-occupy him since if he is a Tzeduki he is not a yorei Shomayim who is ready to endure the bother involved in the Mikdash. Not only will he quit the kehunah gedoloh, he will not even initially accept it. We are interested in [his abandoning the kehunah gedoloh] since [Tzedukim] change the avodoh."

Only a yorei Shomayim is prepared to undergo the burdens involved in the avodoh of Yom Kippur at the Beis Hamikdosh. Someone whose aim is to profane the kodesh, whose only desire is to cast away the Torah's yoke, will abandon his plans the moment he realizes that it requires bother and toil.

HaRav Shimon Shkop ztvk'l in his introduction to Sha'arei Yosher writes that the first luchos came to teach us the above lesson: "How can it be that Moshe Rabbenu thought that because Yisroel made the eigel they should therefore, chas vesholom, remain without Torah? It would have been proper for him to wait for them to rectify their bad deeds before teaching them."

He explains that Chazal (Eruvin 54) have a tradition that there was a special quality in the first luchos and if the first luchos would not have been broken the Torah would never have been forgotten from Yisroel. "They incorporated a segulah that if a person would learn [Torah] once, it would remain forever intact in his memory. Moshe Rabbenu felt that this was liable to cause a most terrible chillul hakodesh. It was possible that a corrupt person, someone sullied with wicked deeds, could become proficient in all parts of the Torah. Moshe Rabbenu learned a kal vochomer from the korbon Pesach of which the Torah writes `No stranger shall eat from it' (Shemos 12:43) and understood that these luchos should be broken and that he should try to receive other luchos."

The second luchos were intended to rectify the possibility of a rosho's becoming knowledgeable of the Torah. To study them certain conditions must be fulfilled: it is necessary to toil and devote extraordinary effort to studying them. "In this way what Moshe Rabbenu was afraid of would not be so common. According to the amount of yiras Shomayim a person has and how virtuous his character is, which is the luach of his heart, so will he be given from Heaven a kinyan in the Torah. If he later plummets from his level, according to how much he falls, so will he forget the Torah, like Chazal write that there are several factors which, Rachmono litzlan, cause a person to forget the Torah."

We must likewise take into consideration a dangerous side effect. R' Yisroel Salanter once said that the atmosphere among the Torah-true causes implications -- for good or bad -- among those far from the Torah. If, choliloh, there is among us a spirit of rejecting the toil over Torah, as if there is no more need in a modern generation for laboring over Torah to acquire its kinyonim, meisisim umeidichim are most likely to adopt this spirit until it will be "liable to cause a most terrible chillul hakodesh. It [may then be] possible for a corrupt person, someone sullied with wicked deeds [to] become proficient in all parts of the Torah."

We must listen to how our Torah Sages direct us. We must return to our roots, to the original way our ancestors studied the Torah. Even though it is necessary to assist those who have only begun studying Torah we must remember that genuine Torah study requires our exerting ourselves to acquire the kinyonei HaTorah.

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