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Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tripping over Torah

Daf Yomi Gittin 43

The Prophet Isaiah tells of how, in the late First Temple period, Jewish learning had reached an all-time low.   People didn’t know where to turn to for guidance and leadership.  The Torah was so confusing to them that instead of seeing it as a ray of light that would provide blessing and goodness in their lives, they viewed it as a “stumbling-block,” a noose around their collective necks that would ensnare them if they messed up in their understanding and application of the Word of Hashem.  And so, when they would encounter anyone with a basic foundation in Torah knowledge they would grab him and implore him to teach them.

Rabbah bar Rav Huna appointed a spokesman and taught: The meaning of Isaiah’s description, “This stumbling-block is under your hand,” is as follows: A person cannot comprehend the true meaning of the words of Torah unless he is prepared to initially stumble over them.

Sadly, the Jewish world of the twenty-first century is not dissimilar to Isaiah’s days.  The number of people with a solid foundation in Torah compared to our total population is woeful.   While Torah has blossomed in certain segments of our community, the chasm between the learned and the unlettered has grown to levels unheard of in our history.

The only difference between the days of Isaiah and today is that back in the day, the Jewish people appreciated what they were lacking.  Today, sadly, the average Jew is like the child at the Pesach seder who doesn’t even know how to ask.  

So what’s stopping you?  If you know an aleph and a beis, and you know someone who only knows an aleph, you have a duty to teach them that beis!  Believe it or not, most Jews in the world today do not even know an aleph!  We are probably witnessing the highest levels of illiteracy in the history of the Jewish people!  We were always known as the People of the Book because of our unparalleled levels of literacy compared to everyone around us.  Sadly, that moniker is but a distant memory that may have once defined us, but has long since eluded our people.

I’ll tell you what’s stopping you.  You think that you need to be a rabbi or big talmid chacham (scholar) to teach Torah.  You’re afraid of making mistakes.  Of being asked questions that you can’t answer on the spot. Of telling people the wrong things.

Says Rabbah bar Rav Huna: Never let that stop you!  The classic aphorism about success says that in order to be successful, you must be prepared to make mistakes.  If you’ve experienced any amount of success in your material life, you know that it wasn’t a straight line to get there.  You hit bumps and snags along the way, but they didn’t stop you.  You learned from them.  So why are you applying an unreachable standard to your duty to teach Torah?   Yes, you’ll make mistakes, but as long as you’re willing to humbly learn from your mistakes and correct them, you’re on the right track!

Everyone makes mistakes.  But that shouldn’t stop you teaching Torah.  A number of years ago, I was asked about the permissibility of placing a coffeemaker on a timer for Shabbat morning.  I thought about it, looked into the Hilchos Shabbos (Laws of Shabbos) seforim and concluded that it was forbidden.  Some years later, I learned that Rabbi Heinemann permits such a coffeemaker.  I immediately called up the fellow that had asked me the shayla years earlier.
“Jack, this is a little awkward, but I’m calling about the coffeemaker.”
“Coffeemaker?  I’m sorry, Rabbi, you must have the wrong person.”
“No, no.  A while back you asked me about putting a coffeemaker on a timer for Shabbos morning.  I told you one thing, but now it’s come to my attention that some permit it.”
“That is awesome news, Rabbi, thank you so much for calling me back.  I don’t know whether I should mention this, but we actually gave up coffee years ago!”

Nobody ever said that mastering the Word of Hashem would be easy.  Whether you’re learning Torah or teaching, don’t let the fact that it is a “stumbling block” stop you from becoming the best you can be.  May you devote your life to learning and teaching, and growing from your mistakes as you go along!

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