Netzvim/Vayelech – Torah Learning: One Step at a Time

There is a famous Medrish in this week’s Torah portion of Netzavim, based on the pasuk: “For this mitzvah which I command you this day, is not too wondrous for you, nor is it far away” (Devarim 30:11). This Medrish assumes the mitzvah this pasuk is referring to is the learning of Torah, and anyone who puts their mind to it can accomplish a a tremendous amount in their learning.

The Medrish Rabba says: “This is what the pasuk in Mishlei (24:7) refers to when it says: ‘Wisdom is as pearls to the fool; in the gate he will not open his mouth.’ What does ‘Wisdom is as pearls to the fool’ mean? Rebbe Tanchuma says this fool walks into a shul and he sees them involved in learning the Talmud and he does not know what they are saying. He is embarrassed as it says, ‘in the gate he will not open his mouth’… Another thing, the Rabbis say that this fool enters a shul and sees them deeply involved in learning Torah and he says to them, ‘How does a person start learning Torah?’ They say to him, ‘First read from a megilla, and then learn from a book of the Torah, and after that Prophets, and after that Writings. One who finishes learning Tanach (Bible) starts learning the Talmud and after that Halachos (Jewish Law), and after that Agados (Stories that one can learn lessons from in Rabbinic literature.)’ When he hears this he says in his heart, ‘When will I learn all this?’ And he leaves the entrance, this is what ‘in the gate he will not open his mouth’ refers to. Rebbe Yannai said, to what is this comparable to? To a loaf of bread hanging in the air (on a branch). The fool says, ‘Who can bring this down?’ A clever person (פיקח) would say, ‘Wouldn’t the one who hung it there bring a ladder or stick and bring it down?’ So to anyone who is stupid says, ‘When will I be able to learn the entire Torah?’ And one who is clever what will he do? He will learn one chapter every day until he finishes the entire Torah. Hashem says, ‘It is not wondrous for you, and if it is too wondrous for you that you cannot get involved in it, then ‘For this mitzvah [which I command you this, is not too wondrous for you, nor is it far away’]” (Medrish Rabba, parshas Netzavim 8:3). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Maharz”u comments on the step of the Medrish which describes how to start learning Torah, by starting with reading from a megillah: “That after one knows how to formulate the letters into words using vowels, then you start reading from a small book, which is a megillah.” For in their days there were  few books written other than the  Tanach (Bible), with the five megillas included. One would teach small children first with a small book, which is one of the five megillas, and then from one of the five books of the Torah, and so on and so forth.

The clever person looks at the breadth and depth of the entire Torah and strategizes. He figures that if he does “one chapter” a day he might actually get everything done and eventually learn the entire Torah. On the other hand, as the RaDa”L notes, the Torah is not really too wondrous for the fool; the fool is the one causing the Torah to be too overwhelming for himself.

Yet, is this really true? Especially in light of the Maharz”u, who says this order of learning is how a child used to begin to learn Torah. If so, the fool has a good point; for he is older and does not have as much time as a child has. A chapter a day might not accomplish learning the entire Torah by the end of his life, for he did not start as a child; so why isn’t it too overwhelming?

However, we are forced to say, based on this medrish, that the fool’s claim is only an excuse.I If a person  simply has the patience  and the foresight to see that if he does a little each day, with some schedule, he will accomplish a lot and Hashem will give him the ability to potentially complete the entire Torah.  Whether it will be the ability to learn more than just “one chapter” a day, or a longer lifespan to accomplish more in learning, whatever it might be, old age is only a challenge. But if one puts his mind to it, and patiently decides to take things step by step, then Hashem will give him the ability to succeed.

This is true about any challenge. If one  has ADHD and can’t sit still, that is still just a challenge. And one who is clever, not necessarily smart and intelligent,  but clever enough to have the patience and foresight to make the proper decision to create some system of success (which anyone, if he or she puts his or her mind to it could do), will ultimately be able to create a system that works, even in the face of ADHD.

On the other hand, the foolish individual has such little patience that when he sees others delving into the depths of gemara he is embarrassed and speechless. He caused the embarrassment on himself by not having the patience to develop a system to get to that level of learning. Imagine – embarrassing someone is akin to killing them in the eyes of Chaza”l; yet he is doing that to himself out of a lack of patience and an inability to sit down and try to learn a little bit each day! It is his fault that he is embarrassed; it is his fault that it is too overwhelming for him.
Ultimately it is in Hashem’s hands how long one lives, how smart one is, and how much Torah knowledge one will be able to learn in his lifetime. However, the medrish is referring to how much effort we put in to trying to accomplish everything. And that effort is up to us; to choose to put all our energies into it and not just walk away from the challenge because it is too much.