Torah Study Methodology
This paper was written years ago during the year when we read Parshas Chukas. It was written as an aid for Torah study. Developing the proper, central questions on any area is crucial to arriving at answers.
When one goes through an account of Jewish history found in either the Torah, Prophets, Writings, or Jewish Law; in the Mishna or the Talmud, it is essential to our understanding to keep the following in mind: the Torah was designed word for word, letter for letter by God, as was the Oral Law. The Talmud was written by the extremely wise. One commits a grave injustice both to the ideas and to oneself by offering a simple explanation of any topic found in these areas, as they all stem from God Who has infinite wisdom, “For God gives wisdom, from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs, 2:6). Everything must be appreciated and understood on this level. Every sentence in the Torah, for example, must contribute to the explanation of the area. In any given story in the Torah, the Prophets or the Writings the precise amount of information is disclosed to us by God so that we can detect the issues. Certain unusual words will be used to catch our attention. Certain passages will seem out of place at first, and seemingly impossible events are described which force us to delve onto the area. These are all generous clues for the investigation.
Besides having the correct appreciation for the design of the Torah, we must also approach our studies with the correct questions. As a Rabbi once said, “asking the right question is 90 percent of the answer.”
Many times when asking a question, you already have more information than you may think, and by using that information in your question, you will more likely arrive at the correct answer. For example: When you see a flat tire on you friend’s car you can ask, “What happened?” But you already know what happened. He drove his car over some sharp object. The question should really be formulated as “What did you drive your car over?” By asking the question in this way, you will start pondering what could have punctured his tire. You’ve directed your thoughts directly to the area that contains your answer - namely, the type of sharp object. If you would have persisted with your first question of “What happened?”, you would have placed your mindset in an ‘astonished’ state, as opposed to an ‘inquisitively’ mode. Being in an astonished state creates an emotional curiosity that does not necessarily probe further towards any intellectual search.
The following area in the Torah will illustrate this point. I will first give a brief summary of the area. Then I will show an indirect and direct way of asking questions.
The area is in Numbers, chapter 21, verses 4 through 9. It states that the people traveled towards the land of Edom, and their patience grew short on the way. They complained regarding God and Moses that there was no bread and water and they were tired of the light bread (the manna). God then sent fiery serpents to attack and kill the people, and many died. The people saw their wrong and went to Moses and confessed that they spoke wrongly about God and about Moses, and asked that he pray that the serpents be removed. After Moses prayed, God told him to create a serpent and to place it upon a pole and that any who looked at it would be healed. Moses did so, and made a copper serpent and placed it on a pole, and any man that was bitten gazed at it and lived. This is the basic story. Be mindful that to successfully answer an area you must keep to the main issues, and identify what is peripheral. This cannot be emphasized enough.
The main questions on this section are: What was the fault of the people? Why did God choose to give “fiery serpents” as a punishment here, as opposed to something else? What does the added affliction of “fiery” serpents come to accomplish? Why did Moses have to make a serpent if the people already confessed? Why put it on a pole? Why did Moses make it out of “copper”? How did looking at this serpent heal?
Rashi said, “let the serpent who was punished due to his evil talk (the section dealing with Adam and Eve) come and exact punishment from those who spoke evil. Let the serpent come, to whom everything tastes as one, and exact punishment from those who denied the good. That one thing (manna) was changed for them to many things.” According to Rashi, the Jews received a corrective measure through snakes because of evil talk. However, this isn’t the first time someone spoke evil. Why didn’t Miriam receive snakes when she spoke against Moses? Why didn’t the Jews receive snakes long before this? They spoke evil before.
These are the basic questions. It is very possible to work with them as they are. But if we make slight changes to their structure, we will direct ourselves closer to the answers. Remember, all of the information needed to answer these questions is in these passages.
The main question should be addressed first. Why snakes? We know why. They spoke evil. So we must ask more directly: “What was the difference in the evil talk of the Jews here as opposed to all other cases, that they received the serpents?” Asking the question in this way, you direct your mind to look at their actions for the answer. You know that in other cases the Jews complained to God and Moses, and they didn’t receive snakes, let alone “fiery” snakes. So speaking evil per se cannot be what is the cause of their extraordinary punishment. What is different here? The difference is that it never mentions anywhere else that the people “grew tired on the way”. This first passage seems extraneous at first. But now, rephrase the question using this information from the first passage: “What is it in the fact that they were tired, that their following evil talk should be punished with serpents?” You can almost immediately make the connection that their evil talk was the direct result of being tired. Meaning, their evil talk was unjustified in relation to the object of their complaint. It was just talk used to vent their emotions regarding something else. There was no inherent flaw with the manna.
Talking can be used for one of two things: 1) communication of an idea or of a real complaint, 2) an outlet for the emotions, as one does when hot tempered and breaks something. So instead of breaking something, you whine and complain. This first passage is here to hint towards the underlying cause for their complaining: they were tired of the journey and didn’t control their feelings, and began to displace their frustration to outlet their emotions.
We now also understand why they received such a different punishment here, as compared to other areas. Here, their complaining wasn’t based on any real problem. They covered it up with a rationalization of the lack of bread and water. But in reality they shouldn’t have complained. This explains why they received serpents. Serpents were given to them because they represent what the original serpent was punished for- evil talk- and to point out to them that they were victims of an emotion of venting their feelings through speech. Had there been another incident in Scripture where an individual, or people, had vented their emotions in this manner, and were on a level for God to administer a corrective measure, we would witness another case of “fiery serpents”. However, this is the only account where this specific flaw occurred, and therefore, the only account where fiery serpents come to correct the situation.
With this information, we can also answer another question: Why the additional aspect of “fiery”? The reason is because they denied the good of the manna. This is what Rashi was pointing to. If there were two aspects to their punishment (serpents and fiery), there must be a reason for both. So “serpents” come to correct evil speech, and “fiery” comes to correct their denial of the good manna.
Tangentially, Miriam wasn’t punished with serpents because her degrading talk wasn’t to outlet an emotion. Contained in her words was an incorrect notion regarding how God relates to man. She however expressed this with a boastful overtone. Thus, she fell prey to two faults; 1) she misunderstood how God relates to Moses, (as compared to herself) and 2) she gave in to the feeling of haughtiness. Since Miriam faulted in these two, God corrected her in both. He taught her how His relationship with Moses differed from His relationship to her, and He gave her leprosy, which lowers ones self-esteem. This is another example of how Gods punishment differs from man’s punishments. When God punishes someone, or a people, it is an act which corrects a fault. It is not just a deterrent. This is the basic concept behind “Mida k’neged mida”, (measure for measure).
What about the question as to why God told Moses to make replica of the serpent? Didn’t the people repent already? This is one way of asking this question. But we can deduce from the facts that there must have been something lacking if God told Moses to do something further. The question should be rephrased as the following: “What was it in the Jews’ request for the removal of the serpents that their repentance was not complete?” You can see the answer clearly. Their confession to God and Moses is immediately followed by their request to have the serpents removed. (An important point about this is that they both take place in the same passage. When one passage contains a few thoughts, they are related.) Their repentance was only for the sake of removing their immediate pain from the serpents, and not a true conviction in their error. Because of this, God instructed Moses to create a replica of the serpent so that they could stare at it in order to contemplate their problem properly and remove from themselves their incorrect notions. Placing it upon the pole facilitated them to direct their thoughts towards God, Who is figuratively “upon high”.
The following steps should be taken when approaching an area of Torah:
1) Know where the area begins and ends.
2) Understand the area thoroughly.
3) Distinguish between main points and side points.
4) Ask yourself how this area differs from all other areas. This will help to point you towards the main topics.
5) Formulate questions clearly using as much information as you have to work with.
6) If the area deals with Gods relationship to man, detect either man’s fault and see how the punishment fits the crime, or look into God’s actions towards man to understand what He was improving upon.
7) If the area deals with mitzvos (commandments), if they are positive commands, look into man’s nature to see what they affect; and if they are negative commands, then they are coming to control a natural disposition of man, which must be tempered.