It would be wrong to say that a clinically depressed person does not need a psychologist, or that a spiritually lost person does not need a mentor, or that a glutton does not need discipline, or that a drunk does not need Alcoholics Anonymous, or that a person lusting after material goods or social status could not benefit from a values seminar on deeper levels of happiness.
It would be wrong to say that a person disoriented by the mystery of death does not need a dose of faith, or that a person broken by the death of a loved one does not need a friend and relative. It would be wrong to say that a person whose marriage is in a shambles does not need a wise counselor, or that a person profoundly disturbed by the failure of his favorite sports team does not require his own treatment.
It would be wrong to dispense with the professional aids and informal crutches that the vicissitudes of life require. That said, there is a general aid, indeed an elixir, that smoothes psychological depressions, cushions life’s bumps and opens a light on the universe’s metaphysical truths.
It is free.
It is available.
Not necessarily easy.
Its dazzle is discovered only in layers.
It beckons from a spiritual place, only faintly heard if one is wrapped in other matters.
It is, however, real — a powerful antidote to addictions, sadnesses and uncertainties.
It is the study of Torah.
It begins with the Hebrew alphabet, whose intricate shapes and designs convey the idea that more resides here than the building blocks of words.
It progresses to the Hebrew Bible, whose phraseology is endlessly layered, full of lessons and counterlessons, conveying the idea that truth has many angles. Depth resides here.
It progresses to Biblical commentary, one level of commentary on Biblical narrative, another on the legal proscriptions and prescriptions.
Here, on the level of narrative, the riches of Torah study truly begin to unfold. One studies a lifetime, yet still does not master Rashi. Then there is Nachmanides, ibn Ezra, Or ha-Chaim, and countless other learned souls who plumbed the Biblical texts for teachings about life, seen and hidden.
Along the way the sensitivity to the deft Hebrew phrase is developed; a sense for the language comes into play. Double entendre, subtle association, meaning-laden prefixes and suffixes, enter the brain.
The relationship between the spiritual and the intellectual emerges.
And this is only on the level of narrative.
On the level of legal analysis, the commentaries multiply, redefining the idea of “bestseller.” Today, the bestseller is that book which sells the most copies. Rare, however, is the bestseller of last year read or even remembered. In the Torah world — the world of Torah study — the bestseller is read — and not only last year’s. But also the bestseller of the last decade, the last century and the last millennium. The commentary of Ovadiah of Bartenura on the Mishnah is read 500 years after he wrote it. The commentary of Tosafot masters on the Talmud is read 800 years after they wrote them.
The relationship between the generations emerges.
The study of Torah is not only the study of Divine teaching, but also the dialogue of the students of His teaching. The study of Torah is a discussion with Bartenura from Italy, with Maimonides of Egypt, with Rivash of North Africa.
It is a discussion with Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir, with Hiyya and Rava, back in ancient Israel and
Yes, there was a Holocaust. But the bridge to the students of the Torah in pre-Holocaust Europe was never breached, let alone burned. Torah study is the discussion — even, the vigorous argument — with the Gaon of Vilna, with the rabbi of Kovno, with the genius of Dvinsk.
Right in those Hebrew letters — in the sophisticated combinations of aleph, bet, gimel — resides eternity.
The Torah, being the message from G-d, is the access to G-d.
Via the Bible, yes; via its narratives and its laws, yes; but also via the very keenest of the students of the ages.
Eternity with a capital E, and eternity with a small e.
Discussion with the Torah’s author — Eternity with a capital E.
And discussion with the students of Torah spread across the centuries, the continents, the cultures — eternity with a small e. To the extent that such a vast unification of time and location, represented by the commentaries, is a kind of eternity, this, too, is one of the spiritual gifts of the study of the Torah.
The person who watches his first football game has only the slightest understanding of what transpires before his eyes. He does not know a first down from a fumble, or a cornerback from a tackle.
The person who opens his first medical textbook must read and re-read before it penetrates.
The person who sits behind the steering wheel for the first time needs lessons. The vehicle, a source of immense pleasure and convenience, is also an instrument of danger. The beginning driver needs instruction.
The person who opens his first text of Torah cannot expect to understand what transpires before his eyes, except slightly. He must read and re-read before this bestseller penetrates. In fact, this text of Torah, this instrument of access to eternity and to the generations, is potentially an instrument of danger. Its powerful energy can be misdirected, misunderstood. It is compared to fire. The student of Torah needs a mentor to help him shape the vessels by which to capture and contain this fire in order to have its heat elevate and warm, rather than burn and scorch.
That said, the Torah, studied with a teacher, is free. Available. Tantalizing.
Not necessarily easy, but real.
Its dazzle emerges. It is an elixir.
A life filled with Torah study still has its depressions, bumps and sadnesses, but it is a different life. A life on a different plane. A higher plane.
May we all meet in high places.
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