Learning is the Greatest?
Ron: I’m having trouble understanding the concept of learning Torah. We know that learning Torah is the greatest thing a person can do – it’s “Knegged Kulam” – “greater than all of them” (Mitzvos). But I don’t understand that. How can my sitting down reading a Chumash, without any understanding of it whatsoever, give me the greatest pleasure and grant me Olam Haba?! It’s reading, not so difficult! I understand if you want to say “Lifum Tzar Agra” (in accord with the toil is the reward), but technically speaking, I can open up Tanach, and read and read, and it’s the “greatest”? Why? How? Shouldn’t helping an old lady across the street, or saving a life be greater?
Thank you in advance,
Mesora: Let’s first understand your value system, and then we can determine what is “greater.”
What is the barometer you use to estimate the value of something? Saving and protecting life are the cases you mentioned. And you are correct…life is to be preserved, even to the point, that we even violate Sabbath to save someone’s’ life. So then I would ask you, “Why is life so important?” You would say “so a person might live and be happy and enjoy the best life”. But keep in mind, that you admit that helping an old lady across the street, or saving a life, themselves, are not the ultimate good. Because you would admit that these are only a good, provided the saved person uses their life positively, in accord with your measure of what is truly positive.
As we continue, I ask you, “How does a person become happiest?” What is “happy?” If we answer it is when a person is not hungry, not in pain, or not poor at all, what we have described is called “removal of pain”. These are not positive things. It is true, we need not to be hungry, in pain or poor, but these too are “for something else”. As removing pain, hunger and poverty do not make a person happy. We ask, “Why not”? The answer is because a person is made up of more than a physical body, which needs food, comfort, and money to have a home and clothes. We also possess many emotions, and also, an intellect. And if these are not satisfied, then a person is not happy. For example, a person has a strong social component, and needs friends. Without friends, a person becomes unhappy. So “friends” gets added to our list of things that make us happy. But is “any” friend good enough? Well, we need friends who have good values. We won’t be happy if our friends tease us, or take advantage of us. We also need recognition in a positive manner. We have a self-image, and we need to feel good about ourselves. But aside from all these needs that we can mention, which make us feel good in an emotional way, we also need to be involved in what we feel is “important”.
We each have a value system and intelligence, and we sense when our lives are not serving any higher purpose. Many people work many years, build beautiful homes, and have many possessions; yet, they wake up one day and sense a feeling of emptiness. Their life is not “going anywhere” they say. This feeling comes about because each of us has intelligence, and we understand on some level, that this is our highest element. (A proof that we value intelligence over all else is that the worst insult is being called stupid.) We realize that repetitive labor, the accumulation of wealth, and entertainment, simply do not satisfy us, novelty wears off. But most people simply don’t know why. They foolishly feel their lifestyles must be right, since everyone else is also living this way! They finally arrive at the wrong conclusion, “I know what would make me happy: MORE!” Since these individuals never examined human nature as a study, like anything else they have studied, they have little or no knowledge about what man truly needs to be happy and live a fulfilled life.
But at some point, most people do wake up to the realization that all the wealth, possessions, vacations, and prestige…simply wear off. People are searching for something, because God designed us to be happy with something else, and not the physical as an end in itself. And there is no way to escape His design of us, and we should not want to escape, but conversely, we should want to learn what His plan is. Well, His plan is as you said at the very outset: He desires that we engage in Torah study. This activity more than all others will enlighten our minds, provide us with absolutely proper morals, and will engage our thought and curiosity to the point, that we forget everything else. Certain scientists at times became so engrossed in studying God’s universe that they forgot to eat! This example illustrates how satisfying the search for knowledge is. As we study, we uncover new ideas that are very appealing, and satisfy us deeply.
Why is the life of wisdom the happiest life? It is because is satisfies in all of us, the most primary feature of our being: our intellect, our soul. When man’s most primary component is satisfied, he will be satisfied. But when man is not pursuing God’s plan for us, seeking wisdom and answers, then he can immerse himself in as much as he wants: buying the fanciest car, and building the most luxurious home. But he will eventually tire from these, and realize they don’t afford happiness, simply because they do nothing for his soul, this central component which affords us happiness.
Additionally, as a Rabbi once taught, physical desires require proper conditions, such as good weather and energy for vacations or sports, and hunger so as to enjoy a meal. But once we have eaten, eating becomes painful, and when weather is poor or we are tired, vacations drag and sports are not enjoyed. But the life of wisdom is not dependent on any condition: all we require, we have with us day in, and day out! All we need is our minds. So the element of pain is not present in this one pursuit, in the life of wisdom. For this reason too, this life of Torah study affords us an additional pleasure, as no pain is associated with it.
Now regarding your statement, since you have no real understanding of Torah, by your own admission, you truly cannot suggest anything compares to learning. It is equivalent to saying “What is behind the first curtain is of less value than this dollar.” Since you are ignorant of what is behind the curtain, your statement is meaningless. What you experience when reading unintelligible words is not learning…since, you are not “learning” anything! Reading is not “learning.” Certainly, any reading wherein you are oblivious to the meaning contains no merit at all.
In conclusion, we realize the best life is one where man’s central component is engaged, where he realizes new truths, and where this realization affords him a satisfaction not only in the ideas themselves, but also in knowing what is important, and what he is to value. He realizes he is following what his Creator designed him for, and he senses less need to engage in the material world, as he realizes it cannot make him happy. It is a slow but enjoyable process to learn and to apply in our lives what we learn, but it works, if we are honest, and patient.
We also realize that actions which we at first assume to be of greater value, like escorting the elderly, under further examination, will reveal a more primary objective: as you said, “Talmud Torah Kinneged Kulam”, “Torah study surpasses all other commands.”