Learning and Teaching, part I

Continuing from the previous entry‘s coverage of Rav Meir Simchah haKohein miDvinskzt”l‘s commentary in the Meshech Chokhmah on Devarim 28:61. He segues from the idea that the last eight verses of the seifer Torah were added via Yehoshua to the Torah itself that we received through Moshe in order to teach us about the effect of the death of the righteous on the generation.

“Rav said to Rav Shemu’el bar Shilah: Prepare for me a touching eulogy, for I will be there.” (Shabbos 153a)

It was explained in the beginning that a person exists in his intellectual soul, like all the lofty people and like the heavenly causes. Before he was created, a person was also a seikhel nivdal [separated intellect; i.e. a pure intellect with no body, like angels; metaphysical] which grasped its Creator. As it says in Niddah pg. 30. [The soul] had personal existence and descended into the lower world in order to do mitzvos maasios [mitzvos that are actions] which require material substance. Like Moshe’s answer to the angels [when they asked that Hashem leave the Torah with them rather than give it to us at Sinai], “Do theft etc… have meaning for you?” Therefore they said, “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world." (Yerushalmi ch. "Hayah Qorei" [I found it elsewhere -- Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b -micha]) Because then [before birth] too he was a seikhel nivdal who grasped his Creator, may He be blessed. (Qorban Aharon, introduction) Similarly if he teaches others then his learning has a purpose, which is to preserve the species on a spiritual level. Therefore also, the one who learns but not for the sake of teaching they thus said, “it would have been pleasanter for him not to have been created.”

Even his creation on the physical level, we find in the Torah that it is for the intent of his preserving the species on a spiritual level. As Hashem (blessed be He) said [of His selection of Abraham], “For I know him, that he will teach his children after him…” (Bereishis 18:19) Similarly, it says in “Yeish Nochalin” [Bava Basra 116a, quoting Yirmiyahu 22:10] “‘Weep for the one who goes…’ Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: the one who goes with no male children. Rav Yehoshua ben Levi said: it is one who goes without a student.” Both preserve the species and to the same effect.

As it says in chapter “Cheileq” [Sanhedrin 99b, on  Iyov 5:7] “Man was born to toil” that is the toil of learning in order to teach, learning in order to do. For it is only for this that he was born, as we explained.

The Meshekh Chokhmah further develops this idea, and returns back to Rav’s funeral instructions and the importance of the last eight pesuqim of the Sefer Torah. But that’s for an upcoming post; I decided that putting it all here would further delay the post, but worse — would bury the point that made me want to blog his comment on this pasuq to begin with.

Rav Meir Simcha haKohein argues that if the purpose of learning was purely to know, then not only is there not purpose to being born, birth actually interferes with that goal. It is easier to learn Torah as a pure intellect, unencumbered by a body. Rather, we are born because the goal of learning is to practice what one has learned, and to teach others.

It’s an interesting comparison to R’ Shimon Shkop’s version of a person’s raison d’etre. Both define the purpose of life in terms of our contribution to the greater whole.

To Rav Shimon, this is is defined “horizontally”, the community of Jews and all of humanity alive when I am. “[T]o be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator…” And it is fundamental on all levels of interaction — physical support no less or more than spreading Torah.

But to the Meshkh Chokhmah, it is defined down the generations — qiyum hamin mitzad hanefesh, preserving the species on a spiritual level. Even our physical aid is in order to provide people the opportunity to develop spiritually. “And you shall teach your children” includes students because it is the passing down of our values, beliefs and knowledge that is the primary purpose of parenthood, not genetics.

Both visions stand in stark contrast to that of Rav Chaim Volzhiner.  In the 4th section of Nefesh haChaim, Rav Chaim teaches that the essence of Jewish life is Torah Lishmah, Torah purely for its own sake. That this clarifies the soul like a miqvah removing impurity, even in ways that go beyond understanding. In the other 3 sections, Rav Chaim Volozhiner draws a picture of man integrated with the metaphysics of the universe — so much so that repairing either requires repairing both. And it is this repair which is man’s purpose in life.

In contrast, HaRav Meir Simchah haKohein miDvinsk plays down the value of learning Torah just to know Torah for oneself.

RCV’s notion of a person’s job to improve the world around him is on mystical and metaphysical planes. This would of course include R’ Shimon’s “bestowing good” and R’ Meir Simcha’s notion of advancing the species’ spiritual progress. Just as the Meshekh Chokhmah believe in the value of learning, even if it’s not to his mind inherent. These are three approaches to the same Torah . But they are different derakhim, non-identical approaches that yield differences in self-image and thus prioritization.

And your thoughts...?