This week’s parsha, Bechukosai, begins with the promise (26:3):
If you will go in My decrees, and observe My commandments, and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their times, and the land will give its produce…
The Torah goes on to promise all sorts of blessings that await the Jewish people if they live up to their covenant with Hashem. Rashi notes that “going in My decrees” could not mean simple mitzvah observance – that is covered by the verse’s next words, “and observe My commandments.” Rather, it refers to “ameilus ba-Torah, toiling in one’s Torah study.” It seems that if we are to receive the Torah’s blessings to their full extent, straight-forward mitzvah-observance is not enough; we must “toil in our studies!”
Yet does history indeed bear out the promise that everyone who scrupulously observes the mitzvos – and even toils in Torah study – finds physical satisfaction and a carte-blanche fulfillment of all his needs and desires? And why is “toil” in one’s studies a prerequisite to this promise? After all, while mitzvah observance is something that, to a large extent, everyone can attain, toil in Torah study seems to be a domain that is largely set aside for the intellectual elite?
It is told that, as an orphaned boy just past the age of bar-mitzvah, Yisrael Meir Kagan – later known as the Chafetz Chaim – studied in Vilna under a renowned teacher and mentor whose other disciples were four and five years his elder. Yisrael Meir’s great mind, it seems, came to the attention of the city’s powerful Haskalah (“Enlightenment”) movement, which sought to introduce Yeshiva students to the world of secular culture. The maskilim ran a government-sponsored academy in the city, and they greatly desired to lure the young prodigy to join their academy. In his own quiet but determined way, Yisrael Meir resisted all their attempts.
On one occasion, the dean of the academy challenged him: “Do not the Sages state, of those who toil in Torah, ‘You are fortunate, and all is good for you! (Tehillim/Psalms 128:2)’ – ‘You are fortunate in This World, and all is good for you in the World to Come! (Avos 6:4)’ Now, can you honestly tell me that this is so? So many Torah scholars live in abject poverty and deprivation! Where is the happiness? Where is the fortune?”
“Show me true toil in Torah,” the youth answered with quiet conviction, “and I will show you true happiness and fortune.” [For Love of Torah p. 151-152]
Perhaps the above question – “Do all who toil in Torah indeed merit true satisfaction and fulfilment of their desires?” – is founded on a deep lack of awareness of the power of true toil in Torah to transform one’s very being. Chazon Ish writes (Kovetz Igros 1:1):
Diligent toil is the most desirable element in one’s studies; it is this which our Sages had in mind when speaking of the many sublime benefits of Torah study. It transforms the corporeal into the spiritual – the body into soul. It permeates one’s limbs and organs, purifying and refining them…
He also writes:
No pleasure in this world can equal that of diligent Torah study. Sweet experiences can impart a sense of pleasure to a person’s body, and to all his limbs in a limited sense. But this pleasure can never compete with the inestimable pleasure of toiling for the wisdom of Torah, in which the soul of man is lifted above; where it absorbs pleasure from the glow of elevated wisdom.
A certain Gadol (Torah sage), it is told, once remarked: “I can’t begin to fathom what greater Gan Eden (i.e. reward in the World to Come) could exist than a room with a Shas (Talmud) and commentaries, and a hot glass of tea!”
Is the concept of “toil in Torah” open to all, or just to the intellectual elite? It is noteworthy that the Torah does not make its promises to he who is “wise” nor “knowledgeable,” but rather to one who toils. Every person – from simpleton to sage – has the opportunity to “toil.” For some, toil begins with learning a pasuk of Chumash or a single Mishnah. Others delve deeper, into Gemara with Rashi and Tosafos. Others go deeper still. Yet at each level, the opportunity for toil and diligence exists.
There is, today, such a proliferation of tools and aids which seek to make the Torah more accessible, that true “toil” in Torah seems to have become a rare commodity. I am not bemoaning this fact; how fortunate we are to live in an age when the Torah is so accessible to all! Yet, at the same time, it behooves us to sit back and contemplate if this has lead us to a lack of true toil and diligence. After all, if one can “look it up,” why exert oneself to work it out all on one’s own? Each person must search to find his own balance – so that the art of “toil in Torah” does not become a relic of the past.
Judged from an outsider’s perspective, there are perhaps indeed many who “toil in Torah” yet have not merited the Torah’s blessings. This, however, is only because the observer fails to appreciate the true inner satisfaction and radiance of one who has elevated his being to the level of those who toil in Torah. “Show me,” said the Chafetz Chaim, “true toil in Torah, and I will show you true happiness and satisfaction!”