Maimonides, Laws of De'os - Chapter 2, Law 4
Law 4 (end)
"A person should always accustom himself to keeping silent...
"So too regarding words of Torah and wisdom. The words of the scholar
should be few and their content much. This is as the Sages
instructed: 'One should always teach his student in a succinct manner'
(Talmud Pesachim 3b). Conversely, many words of little content is
foolishness. Regarding this the verse states, 'For the dream comes through
an abundance of matters, and the voice of a fool is in many words'
For the past few weeks, we have been discussing the dangers of excessive
speech. The Rambam told us to avoid speaking of extraneous matters to
whatever degree possible. Today we are taught that even regarding Torah
and wisdom one should apply judiciousness. We must take care not to go
overboard even when discussing worthy topics. Just because something is
worthwhile does not mean we have an open ticket to cram in as many words
as we can get in edgewise. To the contrary, words which are truly precious
should be treated with reverence. Rather than piling on words of wisdom
making them cheap, we must select our words carefully, allowing the
Torah's wisdom to speak for itself.
The Rambam illustrates this with the Talmudic principle that one should
teach his student in a concise manner. The simplest reason for this is
because too many words confuse the issue. The more verbiage and detail,
the more the basic points are obscured and lost. Further, explaining
something too much cheapens it. Words somehow lose all their aura when
they become excessive. Rather, let the teaching speak for itself. Have the
student pick up the thread and figure it out for himself. Ultimately, this
is the best form of teaching.
(I've been doing a lot of one-on-one tutoring in Talmud study in recent
years. In so doing, I constantly test the fellows I study with, having
them work through the ideas on their own, or seeing if they can anticipate
the upcoming counter of the Talmud. One fellow a number of years ago
basically paid me x dollars an hour to keep my mouth shut (not one of my
better talents ;-) so he could attempt to figure out the Talmud himself.
Some of the mistakes he made were really hilarious, but then again, that's
the only real way to do it.)
There is an additional reason why the Torah should not be explained too
well. The more we explain, the more we're conveying to our students our
own take on the Torah's wisdom. And this limits our students unfairly.
Each student must approach the Torah from his own angle; he must see
things from his own perspective. Every one of us has his or her own
constitution and unique perspective on wisdom. We will each see something
a little bit different in the Torah; it will carry a slightly different
message to each of us. If we are given the freedom to apply our own
creativity to our Torah study, we may just discern its message to us. We
will see our own insights and appreciate the Torah's wisdom from our own
angle. If, however, someone else's lectures are spoon-fed to us to every
last detail, our own growth will be stifled; our Torah study will not
truly express our own individuality. For the true Torah student must see
what the Torah means to *him*, not only what it meant to his teacher.
There's an even more critical issue here. Our goal in Torah study is not
simply to understand the Torah; it is to understand ourselves -- and
ultimately to fashion ourselves in the Torah's image. And this is why it
is so essential that we are given the freedom to fathom the Torah in our
own way. If we can connect to the Torah's wisdom, we will understand what
it all truly means to *us* -- and then it will begin to change us. When
*we* understand the Torah, we will make its wisdom a part of ourselves. We
will understand precisely how we relate to the Torah's wisdom, and we will
begin to internalize it and integrate it into our psyches. This is the
true goal of Torah study. It must be a very personal and intimate
experience. Rather than sitting back and having someone else explain it
all to us, we ourselves must bridge the gap between the Torah's wisdom and
our own souls. And this can only be achieved if we make our personal
acquisition of the Torah -- hearing its personalized message to us and
rising to its calling.
A further thought here is that if the teacher brings the Torah down
entirely to our own level, we will never expend our own efforts to
understand. Torah study must be a growing experience. We must work and
exert ourselves to understand it. We must raise ourselves up to the
Torah's level, rather than expecting it to be explained down to us. One
only truly understands that which he has worked to understand. What one
peruses quickly and effortlessly makes very little impact. Thus, we must
approach Torah study with the mindset that we will lift ourselves up to
understand. We must be prepared to make the effort: we will change
ourselves and adapt to the Torah's eternal teachings, rather than sitting
back expecting to remain who we are while the Torah is brought down to us.
I always make the comment, the ideal form of Torah study is not receiving
engaging and stimulating ready-made lectures over the World Wide Web. One
can read them all day and night -- and still be the same halfhearted
servant of G-d he was all along. It's only when the reader starts
pondering and applying that the Torah comes to life. I consider my own on-
line classes worthwhile not primarily because of the x-thousand
subscribers who passively receive and read it, but because of the very few
whose returned comments make it clear to me they are taking it to heart.
(As an interesting footnote, our own R. Menken, when he first got his feet
wet with the World Wide Web nearly 15 years ago (he was one of the first
Torah educators to take the dive -- how else do you think he got the
acronym "Torah.org"?), he at first envisioned a kind of brokering service
for study partners, which would link up individuals, allowing them to
study together one-on-one (whether on-line or in person). Ideally, we
should be studying Torah on our own, attempting to make our own
acquisition, rather than reading ready-made lectures prepared by others.
However, for better or worse there was little market for this among the
uninitiated. Very quickly Torah.org (then Project Genesis) began to assume
the form it has acquired today.)
Incidentally, a good example of this principle is the study of Kabbalah,
the hidden wisdom of the Torah. The Talmud (Chagiga 11b) writes that one
may teach the secrets of G-d's "Chariot" ("Merkava") only one-on-one, and
that even then the teacher may only provide the outline. The student must
piece together the real meat of it himself.
I believe there are a number of reasons for this. One reason is simply
because the vocabulary does not exist to explain such lofty concepts in
human terms. Kabbalah is an understanding of the heavenly spheres, of G-
d's interaction with the heavens and the world at large. It touches on
concepts wholly outside the human experience, and as such, it cannot be
expressed in terms and concepts familiar to mankind. You just have to
understand them; there is no explaining them to you if you don't.
I believe a big part of the idea, however, is what we wrote above. Having
someone explain the Torah in every detail is *never* truly the ideal. The
student must bridge the gap and internalize the Torah himself. But when it
comes to Kabbalah, such would defeat the purpose entirely. Kabbalah is
wisdom entirely spiritual. To fathom it, one must raise himself to its
level. Only a person who has transformed himself into a being sufficiently
spiritual can truly gain a connection to it. Conversely, explaining it
down, attempting to lower it to the level of the uninitiated layman
(unfortunately a common practice nowadays) will only cheapen Kabbalah
beyond recognition. Kabbalah is the sort of discipline that if you cannot
understand yourself, there's no use explaining to you. If you are prepared
to scale its heights, to raise yourself up to its level, fine, you are
ready for the big leagues. If not, don't expect any short cuts. The
heights can never be lowered to you.
Thus, to wrap up this week, Torah study and Kabbalah in particular are
ideally for those prepared to transform themselves and grow into their
teachings. And for this reason, the vast majority of books of serious
Jewish scholarship (especially mystical scholarship) were never written
with the uninitiated in mind. As I once heard R. Berel Wein put it, you
open the first page of the Talmud and attempt to read it, and the way it
throws around concepts, terminology and ideas the authors seem to just
assume their audience basically knows the entire Talmud already. There are
many reasons for this, but a great part of it is what we've been saying.
The Torah must not be spelled out in every last detail. We must make the
effort ourselves. We must study and ponder for ourselves -- and as my
study partner of years back, we may make many false starts until we truly
understand. For only then will our study truly become a part of ourselves
and will we truly grow.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org