“Rabbi Yishmael bar (son of) Rabbi Yossi said: One who studies Torah in order to teach is granted the ability to study and to teach. One who studies in order to do is granted the ability to study, to teach, to observe, and to do.”
This mishna discusses the proper motive or agenda one should have when he or she studies Torah. Before we begin looking at the motives themselves, one thing is clear from the start: that one ought to have at least some purpose in mind when studying Torah. Studying with no end goal — at least in the long term — of teaching others or applying to oneself is a meaningless exercise in futility. A person who studies out of a detached curiosity — say he finds the Torah intellectually stimulating, or a student who just aimlessly studies what he is taught without even the awareness that this can transform him as a human being — almost cannot be said to be studying Torah at all. Yes, even at its lowest level the Torah may very well work its magic on such a person. Yet virtually all of its greatness can only be appreciated by one who approaches it with the proper mindset.
The Talmud states, “Great is study for it leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b). Likewise we are taught: “The purpose of wisdom is penitence and good deeds” (Brachos 17a). The greatness of the Torah is not in its intellectual content, great as that may be. If it has meaning and relevance to a person, if it provides guidance and inspiration, then it is the word of G-d. If it is just a well-organized set of informative facts, then it may as well be geometry, biology, geology, or any other discipline of study — to be memorized before the exam and promptly forgotten. All of wisdom is valuable, to be sure, but only the Torah is sacred. Studying it with no sense of its sanctity and divinity shows a lack of appreciation for what the Torah truly is.
Given that one must have some purpose in his studies, R. Yishmael offers two choices — studying for the sake of teaching and studying for the sake of doing. A few simple questions immediately come to mind:
(1) “Doing” would seem to be more basic and elementary than teaching. First one does, then one can teach others what he knows. Our mishna, however, clearly considers teaching the smaller and less worthy of the two goals. Isn’t it a higher goal than merely doing?
(2) Is the one who studies in order to teach really not planning to “do” as well? Is he not going to fulfill the Torah he studies, only teach it to others? If so, he is hardly worthy — yet our mishna states that such is a legitimate goal? But doesn’t the Midrash state: “Whoever learns Torah and does not observe, it would have been better had his embryo been smothered” (Tanchuma, Eikev)? If, on the other hand, he will fulfill what he studies — as we would certainly hope — then he should be superior to the one who studies only to do and not to teach as well?
(3) Most of the laws of the Torah have little application to our daily lives, especially today — Temple service, ritual uncleanness, oaths, capital punishment etc. Many major areas of the Torah have no relevance whatsoever, whereas others — tithing of crops, civil law, courts, slaughtering animals — have little daily relevance to the average individual. Does “studying for the sake of doing” preclude all such areas? Is this principle limited only to areas which have actual application to our lives?
(4) Finally, we’d have to take a closer look at the Talmud altogether. If a person really wanted to know how to “do”, you’ll pardon my saying it, but the Talmud is a lousy place to go. One does not have to be an experienced Talmudist to know that it is full of debates, tangents, stories, contradictions, and unresolved disputes. One could learn the entire Tractate Sabbath and be left with at best a vague, disorganized idea of how to observe the Sabbath. (This ignores the fact that many discussions germane to Sabbath observance appear in other tractates – while many discussions about unrelated issues appear in Tractate Sabbath!) If someone wanted to know practical law — how do I “do” — he would be much better served turning to some of the many recent or contemporary works on Jewish law. Today we are blessed with many such works in English and in other languages (some even on the web). But again, if studying to “do” is so critical, why are studious Jews so obsessed with! the Talmud and very little else?
The direction all these questions are leading us that “doing” clearly has much further-reaching implications than just observing the commandments. The commentator Rabbeinu Yonah points out that if a person learns in order to teach but not observe, G-d would hardly grant him the ability to learn and to teach, as our mishna states. The person would be a hypocrite and possibly a heretic; he would hardly deserve Divine assistance. (In truth, there is a version of this mishna which reads that such a person, who wants to teach but not fulfill, will not merit to learn or to teach.) If so, what is the true “doing”?
The answer I would like to suggest is that doing does not mean simply observing the commandments. It is not a dedication of the hands. That minimum is certainly required of us all. Rather, it implies studying in order to change oneself. It means being open to the Torah and its teachings and being ready to be moved and inspired by them. The Torah — even areas with little practical relevance — has an effect on a person who is ready to integrate its teachings. The highest goal in studying is not only to observe the commandments. It is to become different: a more sanctified and inspired human being.
This is the reason why the Talmud plays such a great role in Jewish life and in the study halls of the yeshivas (rabbinical colleges). The Talmud is filled with the lively discussions and debates of the Sages. It contains the intellectual investment which went into the development of the Oral Law, together with the accompanying energy and vitality.
When we study the Talmud, we not only study facts and conclusions. We relive — and become a part of — our heritage. We take part in the very discussions which animated the lives of the scholars of old. We begin to think in the manner our Sages thought. Developing, fathoming, formulating the concepts of the Talmud, experiencing the passion and intensity of the debates — as well as becoming acquainted with the scholars who collaborated in its writing: this is what changes us as individuals. The Torah is not an “ology” — a area of organized, scientific study. It is life. It is a way of thinking and of viewing the world. The true student of the Talmud is one who wants the Torah to become a part of him, who wants to become a true Torah personality.
A Chassid once came to his Rebbe, proudly proclaiming that he had gone through the entire Talmud six times. The Rebbe wisely countered: “You’ve gone through the Talmud, but has the Talmud gone through you?”
This form of Torah study is far superior to learning to teach. Teaching requires a very real clarity in Torah concepts and definitions. The true teacher is one who has a more profound understanding of the Torah than one who studies for his own edification. He must master the Torah’s concepts and be able to articulate them, to explain and expound them to others. And this is no small feat. In the Talmud, R. Chanina remarked, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students” (Ta’anis 7a). Teaching forces a person to ask himself (or be asked) basic questions of definition and to clarify and hammer out concepts and principles. Our mishna states that one who sincerely, devotedly, and realistically sets his goals thus high will be blessed with this talent.
(All of this is a rather far cry from the old saying, “Those who can’t, teach.” That may have been the case for many of the teachers we all suffered through once upon a time. But a much higher ideal is asked of the true Torah teacher — or of any teacher for that matter.)
One who studies to do, however, wants more than to understand clearly. He wants to incorporate and make the Torah’s lessons a part of his life. He wants the Torah to enter his psyche and change his heart.
And to such a person our mishna offers an insight: Not only will he experience personal revelation himself, but he will become the capable teacher as well. If a person assimilates the Torah’s teachings and lives them, if they becomes truth and reality to him, he will be able to impart them to others when the time comes. Teaching is not only a matter of sharpening our communication skills or employing engaging teaching techniques. When we speak sincerely — because it is life to us — people will recognize this and appreciate it. An old Jewish saying goes, “Words which come from the heart enter the heart.” I have personally been most moved by educators who were honest and unassuming, but whose words were sincere and heartfelt. A polished vocabulary, sense of humor, eye contact etc. are all valuable tactics, but in the final analysis, Torah and truth can only be transmitted by the person of truth.
(The definition of studying to do was pointed out to me by R. Yochanan Bechhofer.)
Text Copyright © 2015 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.