Rabbi Herschel Shachter
Rabbi Herschel Schachter

Ego and Humility in Torah Study

The entire chumash was dictated to Mosheh Rabbeinu word for word. The Rabbis had a tradition that the Author had more than one intention in any given passuk. "Elokim said one thing, but we understood from each passuk more than one meaning" (Tehillim 62:12, see Sanhedrin 34a). Although the Rabbis said that the literal meaning of a passuk can never be ignored (see Shabbos 63a), any given passuk may have more than one level of interpretation, all intended by the Author.

The pesukim in the shishi aliyah in Parshas Chukas describe the various travels of Bnai Yisroel in the desert and allude to various miracles which they experienced. The rabbis of the Talmud had a tradition (see Avos 6:2 and Eruvin 54a) that on the additional level of interpretation, these pesukim allude to the study of Torah. The passuk (21:14) which speaks of waging wars is understood by the rabbis (Kiddushin 30b) to be implying that one must learn Torah as if he were engaged in battle (as Talmudic expression says, "milchamta shel Torah"). In the words of Rav Soloveitchik, "In talmud Torah we must not be obedient. We must have the ability to criticize. We see how Rav Yochanan sorely missed his companion Raish Lakish, who constantly argued with him" (Shiurei Harav, 1994, pg. 122). To succeed in learning one must have a healthy ego; he must possess a "gadlus hamochin" (ego)! When learning with another, one must act towards the other "as if he were his enemy" in battle. A student must partially violate kavod horav and a son learning with his father must partially violate kibud av. Only after the learning session is over do they again "show their love and full respect for each other". In the Chut Hameshulash (the official biography of the Chasam Sofer) the following story is related: Upon his bar mitzva, the Chasam Sofer delivered a pilpul consisting of an original chidush that he had developed. He began by quoting an idea from the Sefer Kos Yeshuos, by his great grandfather (the Maharshashach), and then demonstrated that it was not correct. His father was so upset by his young son's arrogance and disrespect for elders, that at such a young age he should dare to disagree publicly with his great-grandfather (the Maharshashach), that he slapped his son in public. The child's rebbe, Rav Nosson Adler, turned to the father and asked, "Why did you slap your son? He is right in his opinion!" The rebbe then encouraged the young bar mitzva bochur to leave his father's home. If every time the young boy will ask a kashe on a Tosafos or a Rambam the father will slap him, he will stifle his originality and his ability to develop in learning!

During the Second World War, when the students of the Mirrer Yeshiva were traveling for a week and a half on the transcontinental railroad towards Vladivostok, there were non-Jewish passengers traveling on the same train. One of the Polish non-Jews on the train later published his memoirs and included a description of what he had observed on that trip. He recognized that these young people were Jewish students. He related that while the "big books" were open, and they were obviously "studying", they were extremely belligerent towards each other; sharp, seemingly angry, and even abusive. As soon as the "big books" were closed, they acted towards each other as the best of friends. The non-Jew did not know what to make of the scene!

The Mirrer students were following the Talmudic formula for studying Torah: while learning they "waged battle" with each other, acting towards each other like enemies. As soon as the "big books were closed" and they were done learning, they acted again towards each other with great love and respect.

After the "big books are closed", not only is it important to have love and respect for each other, it is also imperative that one set aside his ego and his "gadlus hamochin", and return to a state of "katnus hamochin" (humility). According to our tradition, the Torah is not merely a collection of laws; it is also a description of Elokus (G-d's essence). When the Torah speaks of Moshe Rabbeinu and states that he was the only prophet who ever "saw the image of G-d" (Bamidbar 12:8), this refers to the fact that Moshe is the only prophet to whom the entire Torah, a description of G-d, was given,. Of course, the description is not outright. "Elu yedaitiv - hayisiv!" ("Were I to fully understand G-d, I would be Him!" - Kuzari). Only G-d Himself can understand the nature of Elokus. The Torah only provides a description of Elokus by way of (mashal ) parable, and not even an outright mashal, but rather a mashal of a mahshal of a mashal (see Nefesh Hachayim of Rav Chaim of Volozhin.) This is traditionally taken to be the meaning of the passuk in the Sefer Shmuel (I:24:13) which refers to "the Ancient parable". The Torah is the parable of the Ancient One (see Rashi to Mishpatim, 21:13.) Not only is the Ancient One the author of this parable, but more importantly, it is a parable of Him! The Torah is a mashal of Hashem, just as a photograph is a mashal of the individual whose picture was taken (Chafetz Chaim in Shem Olam.)

When one, by using his healthy ego, gains some new insight into the Torah, what has happened is that he has now come closer to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and gained some added insight into His essence. One who realizes that he has come closer to the presence of G-d should find that to be a greatly humbling experience. All the while the quest for Torah knowledge is proceeding, the student must maintain the ego to succeed in the learning endeavor. But as soon as "the big books are closed", the greater the Torah scholar, the more humble he should be (see Rav Soloveitchik's lecture on this topic, which appeared in "The Light".) The talmid chacham who is arrogant demonstrates that he has not experienced any extra closeness to G-d through his added insights. If that is the case, he does not really deserve to be granted the Divine assistance needed to gain those new insights; and so, according to tradition "any talmid chacham who remains arrogant will be punished, and he will forget his Torah knowledge" (Pesachim 66b.)

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