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Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann

Growth in Torah - Getting Over the Baby Steps

For long-time members of exercise and fitness clubs, January is a particularly unenjoyable month. It's the time of year when fitness clubs get a flood of new memberships - people who as one of their New Year's resolutions resolve to "get into shape" by joining a fitness club. (This is their equivalent of teshuva on Rosh Hashana?) Of course, the "regulars" know not to complain too bitterly about the sudden lack of availability of their favourite treadmill or stair-climber, because before long almost all of the penitent newbies will have abandoned the premises for their more familiar couches and arm-chairs, leaving in their wake a flow of cash which the club can now use to purchase new equipment and enhance their facilities.

Why is it that so many people undertake this yearly ritual, yet so few actually follow through and become "regulars?" (And how many readers secretly harbour expensive exercise bikes and treadmills collecting dust in their cellars?)

While not too many of us likely remember what it was like to take our first steps, one can imagine it could be quite a daunting task. An action as simple as walking, which we take completely for granted, probably seems to the untrained toddler an unreachable goal. Yet we urge our young ones on. We know the secret: Once they get the hang of it (and fall down a few hundred times), they'll be prancing around the house and discovering things and places they weren't able to reach before they learned. Once they learn to walk, it will become second nature. They will move on to greater challenges and new experiences.

Try for a moment to look at the word-filled pages of a book (or even this article) through the eyes of a three year-old. Have you ever tried to make sense out of the pages of a Chinese newspaper? Have you ever wondered to yourself, in your ignorance, if there is anyone who is actually capable of making sense of that eclectic mish-mush of letters an figures (after all - it looks Chinese!)? One can imagine that's the feeling a small child gets when he looks at the pages of our books - books that convey much meaning and significance to us. Try to tell him that one day, he'll be whipping through those words and letters faster than he can speak them - he'd never believe you.

As we grow, we accumulate skills, talents, and abilities that help us to interact with others and with the world. The learning/growth experience is almost always the same: Initial disbelief that what we are about to learn is even doable; extreme difficulty in acquiring the skill; gradual progress; mastery. During the initial stages, it takes no less than a leap of faith to believe that one day we'll achieve mastery in what now seems so unreachable. The more times we traverse the learning curve, the more confidence we attain that if we persevere, it can be done.

How frustrated would we find it if a child would simply give up - refusing to learn how to walk, to talk, or to read? We'd do everything we possibly could to try and convince him that, although it does truly seem hard, he really will get used to it; that everyone has to go through the learning process; that things are always hardest at the beginning.

Yet how many areas are there in our own lives where we've really made little progress since we were young (or even regressed!)? Do we still grapple with the same issues and problems we battled with in our youth? Has our concentration during davening steadily improved over the years, as we have developed and grown older? Has our shemiras ha-lashon consistently gotten better, to the point where we now shy away from gossip and slander almost as a matter of fact? Have we, over the years, developed a more serious attitude towards Torah study, so that we now chuckle when we think that, once upon a time, we actually used to waste time on narishkeiten when we could have been learning? Has our ruchnius (attitude toward spirituality) matured at the same rate as the years that pass us by? How many times have we resolved to change, begun changing, and then fallen back into our old, predictable habits?

Perhaps we have failed to understand that the same learning/growth process - encompassing all stages from disbelief to mastery - applies not only to physical growth and tangible skills, but also to spiritual growth and devotion. We read in this week's parsha (19:5-6): "And now, if you will listen to My voice... you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples... and you shall be to Me a holy nation." What does Hashem mean when He asks us to listen to Him "now?" Does this imply that later we can ignore Him? Rashi explains: "If you listen to Me now - and accept the Torah upon yourselves, it will become sweet and pleasant for you in due time, for all beginnings are difficult."

Rav Aaron Kotler zt"l explains: If one has just begun to try and learn Torah more diligently - say for instance he's made up his mind to learn a half- hour a day with full concentration and without any interruption - and he's finding it extremely difficult, what does he say to himself? "If I can barely manage a half-hour, do I stand a chance of ever learning Torah with hasmada all day, or even for extend periods of time?" If he's made a resolution to recite at least the Shemona-Esrei with full concentration, and is finding that extremely difficult, he's convinced he has absolutely no chance of ever reciting all his prayers and blessings with kavannah (concentration).

What he doesn't realize, says R' Aaron (Mishnas R' Aaron), is that kol haschalos kashos - difficulties are mainly during the initial stages of growth. Just like once the child learns to walk, there's no looking back, so too, once a person has truly traversed a growth area in his Torah, tefilah, etc., it becomes second nature. He's now ready to conquer new vistas, and elevate his avodah to higher levels. The problem is we so seldom get past the stage of taking "baby steps." We're forever bogged down with getting over the initial stages of growth, and waste our entire lives without ever realizing that with just a little more effort and conviction, we could have grown and achieved mastery in so many areas of our ruchnius. What a waste it would be if a human being spent their entire life without ever learning how to walk; if after taking those initial steps, and falling, and bruising his knee, he just gave up. And what a waste if we were to spend our entire lives without ever maturing and progressing past the initial stages of growth in our avodas Hashem. True, growth does involve a few scrapes and bruises along the way, but if we persevere, they will one day become a distant memory.

Have a good Shabbos.

This week's publication was sponsored in memory of Rabbi Shlomo Langner, son of the holy Admor R' Moshe of Stretin, zt"l.

Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.



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