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Parshas Vayikra (5777)

Torah 101: A Student's Guide to Spiritual Growth

You would be amazed at just how much can be learned from even one small verse in the Torah. Take the very first verse in the Book of Leviticus, for example, the verse that starts off this week's Torah portion, Parshas Vayikra:

"He called to Moses, and G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:" (Leviticus 1:1).

A seemingly innocuous verse that really doesn't seem to say that much, other than that G-d called Moses from the Tent of Meeting in order to teach him the laws of the Torah. Upon further inspection, however, we can learn a great deal from this one verse, as it actually holds the keys to studying Torah effectively, in a way that can positively impact our lives.


You see, Torah is unlike any other discipline. A person can study biology all his life, but it might never affect him on a personal level, helping to refine his character. One can even study ethics and philosophy for many years, and it quite possibly will not move him to become a better person in practice. But the study of Torah is virtually guaranteed to refine and perfect the character of one who studies it. And that's really the whole point of Torah study, and what makes it unique among all the other disciplines.

The Torah is not merely information that one "learns" or "reads" or "takes a course in", until he or she "graduates". It is actually a collection of G-d's divine wisdom and insights, and an instruction book for leading a spiritually fulfilling life. And the Torah is as infinite and eternal as G-d is. Which means that you can never really graduate. There's always more depth and insight.

So when we study Torah, we are essentially connecting with G-d. And the point of studying Torah is for us to become more clued in to the beautiful and timeless value system that it lays out for us, thereby making us more refined and G-dlike, and allowing us to lead more meaningful lives.

Now I'll bet you're wondering how it is, then, that there are some people who study Torah, yet it doesn't seem to have affected them in a positive way. Unfortunately, we sometimes read or hear about a "religious" Jew who studies the Torah and performs all the commandments, yet whose ethical behavior, or lack thereof, shows that the Torah study did absolutely nothing for him. What happened to all that Torah study? Isn't the point of Torah study to yield a Torah lifestyle in which unethical and immoral behavior has no place? Shouldn't all that Torah learning have refined the individual to the point where he would have proper ethics and morals and lived his life accordingly? What went wrong?


The truth is that, as with all other spiritual endeavors in life, ethical character refinement through Torah study is not an automatic thing. It's not like you can just sit in on a Torah class with your feet up on a desk, drinking a Coke, and hearing some Rabbi talk about the lessons of the Passover Seder, and - voila - you've become a changed person. It just doesn't work like that. There are rules and conditions for maximizing our spiritual growth through Torah study. And when we follow those rules properly, we are guaranteed to become more refined, more special, and more G-dlike.

The rules and conditions for spiritual growth through Torah study are alluded to in the verse mentioned above, the very first verse in Leviticus:

(1) "He called to Moses” - Rashi, the great Bible commentator, explains that before each commandment of Torah that G-d taught Moses, He first "called " to him affectionately, "Moses, Moses".

The very first rule of Torah study is that we must realize that G-d is calling us and speaking to us every time we open up His book. G-d revealed Himself to all of us one time on Mount Sinai 3328 years ago, and gave us His most treasured possession, the Torah. And since that time - G-d tells us - if you want to hear what I have to say to each and every one of you, just open My Torah, and you will hear Me calling you, and speaking to you.

The moment we forget that G-d is speaking to us, and we treat the Torah and its study as just another academic endeavor, or intellectual exercise, or even as just another self-help guide for personal fulfillment, we have severed that connection with G-d, and have greatly minimized the Torah's ability to affect us in a positive way. We can only become G-dlike through Torah study, if we see G-d calling us close to Him when we study His word.

(2) The second rule for growth is that we exercise humility. If you look at this verse in a Torah scroll, you will see that the Hebrew letter alef at the end of the word Vayikra, "And He called", is written smaller than the other letters.

The commentaries explain that the letter alef, related to the Hebrew word aluf, means teaching or learning. And the message of the small alef is that if you want to absorb the lessons of the Torah in a way that can change your life, you must be small and humble, and not too full of yourself. A professor in the university may be the top expert in his field, and, at the same time, may also be the most arrogant person in the world. But you will never find true Torah greatness and ethical refinement together with arrogance and haughtiness. The Torah can only work its magic on someone humble enough to allow its lessons for growth to get inside him. But if there is too much self in the person, where is the Torah going to fit in?

(3) A third rule for growth comes from the commentary of Rashi to the same verse. Rashi explains that in a Torah scroll, we find breaks in the text indicated by blank spaces. The significance of these breaks, says Rashi, is so that Moses could have some time between one section of the Torah commandments and the other, in order to contemplate and assimilate the information.

The idea of "breaking" during or after Torah study in order to contemplate and ponder and savor all that has been learned, is key to the spiritual growth one can achieve through Torah study. When we learn Torah, we must enter into its study with the attitude that this is going to change us and refine us, and make our lives more meaningful and fulfilling. Well, that being the case, every so often we should "break" and ask ourselves what have we gained so far, and what can we do with this new information. How can we apply this new knowledge and insight into our daily lives? But if as soon as the class is over, or as soon as the Rabbi finishes his sermon, we right away run out the door, and we don't take the time to contemplate what we've just learned, then it can't possibly have an effect on us.

(4) And, finally, the fourth rule for growth in Torah comes from the last word in the verse - leimor - "saying". The word leimor seems superfluous. "G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying". What does the last word add to the text? The great Bible commentators explain that the word leimor means "to say to others". In other words, Moses is being called by G-d to learn the Torah from Him, and then to say it to the Jewish people.

The message here is clear. When we study Torah, we must realize that we are not merely studying for ourselves, for our own spiritual growth. We are commanded by G-d to study the Torah, and to transmit the beautiful values and morals contained within in it to the people around us, and to the next generation. We can't be selfish when it comes to Torah growth. We must know that when we are affected positively by the Torah that we learn, this will inevitably affect our families and all future generations. And we need to be aware of that responsibility when we are studying the Torah.

The very first words that we teach a child when he first learns to speak are the words “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, morashah Kehillas Ya'akov - Moses taught us Torah, a "heritage" for the Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). We thus impart to the child from very early on, that the Torah that he will be studying is part of his Jewish heritage, and, as such, is his responsibility to pass on to future generations as well.

The fulfillment of these four conditions is crucial for our being able to grow and refine ourselves spiritually. And any Torah that is learned without these conditions will not necessarily yield the results that true Torah study should.

Who knew that one small verse in the Torah could teach us so much?!

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