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20 Ellul 5760 - September 20, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Acquisition of Chochmo

By HaRav Aharon Westheim zt"l,

"Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom is enduring" (Ovos chapter 8, Mishna 9). Rabbeinu Yonah has two alternative explanations for this statement. He says as follows: "The tanna is referring to the motives of a person. Someone whose motive in pursuing wisdom is to prevent his soul from sinning, and he indeed acquires wisdom, his wisdom endures. He keeps away from sins, and also fulfils mitzvos as a result of his wisdom and understanding.

"`If his wisdom preceded his fear of sin, his wisdom is not enduring.' If his motive at the outset was not to acquire wisdom to put into practice, but rather just to procure wisdom and understanding, such wisdom will not endure, and this is only logical."

This reasoning may be challenged. Is it not possible for someone to study Torah initially without this motive, and still merit to have his wisdom endure, if he acquires the correct motive in the course of time as a result of his studies?

Rabbeinu Yonah has discovered an important point for us here: all the wisdom that we attain makes an impression on us in accordance with the motives and the intensity of purpose which accompanies the process of attaining it.

Someone who studies a certain discipline because he needs it to make a living will put more effort and will delve deeper into his studies than another person studying the same discipline only because he loves wisdom.

The same applies to Torah study. A person who feels that without learning Torah it would be totally impossible for him to keep mitzvos and refrain from transgressions, and he wants to keep the Torah properly, will certainly study seriously and with great effort, realizing that his life depends on it. It is only natural, therefore, that whatever he learns will become an integral part of him and he will not forget it.

On the other hand someone who learns without this motive, while his studies may stir him to keep the Torah, this feeling will eventually dissipate completely. This is because they will necessarily remain on a more superficial level, having in the first place not been entered into with full determination and concentration.

It would appear that this is what is lacking in the mussar study of a lot of bnei Torah. Although they involve themselves with mussar, their studies only result in -- at best -- intermittent awakenings which do not make a permanent impression on them. This is because they do not yet feel the deep difference between the two types of people described, and that the mussar way enables you to secure the correct motives, which are essential for anyone who wants to merit the acquisition of Torah.

Rabbeinu Yonah further writes, "Another explanation is that when a person's fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his learning serves to instruct and encourage him to walk in the path that he is already used to from his days of living in fear of sin; he feels a love for wisdom and desires to acquire more of it, since it endorses what he is already used to.

"However, when a person's wisdom precedes his fear of sin, the wisdom he encounters clashes with the sins he has habituated himself to, and eventually he will rebel against it, because it will appear to him as a burden."

In other words, if someone is lacking in yiras Shomayim before he embarks on his Torah studies, his learning will not endure, because it is impossible to fight the yetzer horo only with wisdom, since a person's desires and wishes are engraved into his personality from his youth, and will eventually prevail and be victorious.

Wisdom itself does not have a strong hold on the internal make-up of the person studying it. Its function is to serve as a tool and means to help the oved Hashem. Therefore it has to be connected to an independent force inside the heart, otherwise known as yiras Shomayim. According to this, the possuk in Iyov (28:28), "Behold, the fear of Hashem that is wisdom," can be easily understood. (See also the Vilna Gaon's he'oros on mishnayos, where there is a reference to the posuk in Tehillim (111:10), "The fear of Hashem is the beginning of wisdom etc.," as well as Tosphos Rabbi Akiva Eger on Ovos d'Rabbi Nosson chapter 22.)

I would suggest that Rabbeinu Yonah's two commentaries complement each other, since only if both aspects of fear preceding wisdom delineated by him are combined, can wisdom endure. Even if a person has accustomed himself to the ways of yiras Shomayim and walks in its paths, nevertheless, if he will not study wisdom with a consciousness of its importance, without the knowledge that only it can sustain him, his yiroh will not be sufficient for the contents of wisdom to penetrate the innermost recesses of his heart. On the other hand, if a person will not make a point of aspiring towards yiras Shomayim and taking practical measures to acquire it, even if he studies in such a way that the wisdom becomes internalized, his desires and nature will oppose and fight him in order to banish his yiroh. In fact, a person who makes do with acquired wisdom, is exposed to the danger that his real knowledge on the one hand and his aspirations and urges on the other hand, will conflict and collide with each other with such an unbearable intensity that he will rebel against his wisdom, as Rabbeinu Yonah says here, he will end up becoming an apikores.

This phenomenon explains why, historically, we find some gedolim being affected by apikorsus, even though we also (especially so) suffer from inner contradictions and conflicts. [So why should they do worse than we?] The deep explanation for this is that the knowledge and intellectual perception of the gedolim is so clear- cut and real; that they match in intensity their human desires and dispositions. The resulting battle inside them is so difficult, that sometimes they give in to their yetzer hora and fall into bad ways.

Our learning, by way of contrast, is not so internalized, and as a consequence the wisdom and aspirations we possess do not pose the same challenge to our natures which would result in internal dissonance and pressure forcing us to nullify and overpower our natural inclinations because of the intensity of our intellectual attainments. Consider this point well.

The Mishna continues, "He used to say, Anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom is enduring." Rabbeinu Yonah explains this to mean that if a person accepts upon himself in a free- willed and whole-hearted manner to do everything in accordance with the directions of his rabbonim, his reward is as great as if he had kept all the mitvos, and his deeds are considered to exceed his wisdom. The continuation of the Mishna, "Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom is not enduring" is taken to refer to someone who says that he has to learn the halocho and the whole Talmud before starting to keep the mitzvos. Such a person's wisdom will not endure, "for his character traits have first to be improved if his wisdom is to endure." Why does Rabbeinu Yonah refer to character traits in this context? If by accepting the yoke of mitzvos as instructed by the chachomim, a person has fulfilled the only condition for acquiring enduring wisdom, what further need is there for the perfection of character traits?

The connection between the two concepts is the following: if a person has not improved his tainted character traits, it is impossible for him to accept this yoke totally, his desires and pride would be bound to stand in the way of its unconditional acceptance.

This is also the deep explanation behind Rovo's answer to the Zeduki (Shabbos 88a) who had accused the Jewish people of having been rash when they agreed to accept the Torah before hearing its contents. Rovo said to him, "We who walked in integrity, of us it is written, 'the integrity of the upright shall guide them.' But of others, who walked in perversity it is written, 'but the perversenes of the treacherous shall destroy them.' " Rashi explains, "We walked with Him in good faith, as those who act out of love and we relied on Him that he would not mislead us with something with which we could not cope." Rashi is refering to what Chazal tell us about the nations of the world who asked what is written in it, instead of unconditionally accepting the Torah, as opposed to Klal yisroel who had uprooted any faulty character traits, thus enabling them to receive the Torah immediately, without any questions, since their hearts were faithful to Hashem, ready to obey whatever He would command.

In our Mishna we find two conditions necessary for the acquisition of wisdom: that wisdom be preceded by yiroh and that deeds are to exceed wisdom.

It may be suggested that these two points refer to two different levels. This may be seen more clearly in Mishna 17: "Where there is no derech eretz there is no Torah . . . where there is no yiroh there is no wisdom etc." See Rabbeinu Yonah in his commentary on the first phrase, where he repeats the explanation expounded before on the Mishna about deeds exceeding wisdom, and the commentary on the second phrase, where he gives the same explanation as the second peirush on the Mishna about yiroh preceding wisdom.

The tanna of the Mishna is very precise with his words when choosing to juxtapose Torah with derech eretz and chochmo with yiroh. Someone whose learning is on a low level (he is given a certain description by the tanna further on in the Mishna) aims to be a student of others: this is the application of Torah in its literal sense of wisdom imparted to others (as in horo'oh). For this Torah to endure, the recipient has to undertake to fulfil eveything he is taught, without deviating to the left or to the right, accepting absolutely the Torah taught to him by his rabbonim. The only precondition for study on this level to succeed is the eradication of defective character traits.

However, this is not enough for a person who has reached a higher level of intellectual independence, since so far from nullifying himself before his studies, his autonomous personality is likely to be more accentuated and to become more conspicuous as a result of his wisdom. This, in turn, will awaken all his mental faculties and ambitions, including any residual improper desires, the danger being that these will clash with his -- albeit Torah-based -- wisdom. To be preoccupied with good behavior (derech eretz) will not be enough for this person, since it is impossible to uproot completely all defective character traits. In fact, the baalei mussar and sephorim kedoshim explain that the origin of the sins of many gedolim such as Korach and the meraglim is to be found in subtle points of faulty character traits. It is therefore incumbent on anybody about to embark on the study of "wisdom," to make sure first that his yiras shomayim is firmly in place. This consists of the awareness that all of a person's endeavors and avoda in life have to be directed only towards Hashem. If he becomes accustomed towards derech, then chochma will serve to strengthen him, and he will eventually attain perfection in yiras Shomayim.

HaRav Aharon Westheim zt"l, was rosh yeshivas Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris. His yahrzeit is 25 Elul and he was niftar in 5754.

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