AS A BEGINNING OF this preparation, so that one is ready to acquire Torah, the Torah requires specific conditions. The first condition is toil and contemplation, as our sages explain “‘If in my statues you go’ (Vayiqra 26:3) … that you should be toiling in the Torah.” (Rashi ad loc, quoting Sifra 26:2) And other things required for acquiring Torah. ולראשית ההכשרה לזה שיהיה ראוי לקנין תורה, הצריכה תורה תנאים מיוחדים, ותנאי הראשון הוא העמל והיגיעה, כמו שדרשו חז״ל “‘אם בחוקתי תלכו’ – שתהיו עמלים בתורה”, ושאר ענינים הדרושים לקנין תורה.
In this section we will see Rav Shimon explore the relationship between learning Torah, refining middos, and the life-mission of sanctifying oneself to the task of being good to others.
In an earlier essay an earlier essay (published in Daas Torah: Child and Domestic Abuse vol. I by R’ Daniel Eidensohn pp. 220-233), I compared the Vilna Gaon’s and R’ Chaim Volzhiner’s approaches to the relationship between Torah learning and Middos development. To quote that section:
Judaism’s claim is not that Torah and mitzvos by themselves produce moral people, or that following Torah with mitzvos is a complete definition of living according to the Truth. [This claim was substantiated by quotes from the gemara earlier in the essay.] In other words, there is a preparation necessary for one to become ennobled by Torah, and if someone does not engage in this preparation, they are likely to abuse its teachings and experience spiritual poison.
The Vilna Gaon, as quoted in Even Sheleimah, is specific as to what this preparation entails:
The relationship of Torah to the soul: A comparison to rain for the ground, it causes what was planted there to grow, whether a sam hachaim or a sam hamaves, a poison. Similarly, Torah causes what is in his heart to grow. If what is in his heart is good, his yir’ah will grow; if what is in his heart is a “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” then the bitterness that is in his head will grow. As it is written, “the righteous will walk in it, and sinners will stumble in it” (Hoshea 14:10, as explained by Chazal), and as it is written, “To those who go to the right side of it, it is a medicine of life; to those who go to its left, it is a deadly poison,” (Shabbos 88b).
Therefore, one must cleanse one’s heart every day, before study and after it, of impure attitudes and middos, with a fear of sin and with good deeds.
This [process] is euphemistically called “going to the bathroom.” It was about this that they hinted when they said, “Going to the bathroom is greater than all of it,” (Berakhos 8a) and, “Whoever spends a long time in the bathroom, it is lofty,” (Ibid 55a). Also, when they said, “Get up early and go, in the evening go” (Ibid 62a), they intend to say that in his youth and in his old age a man should not distance himself a great distance from his Creator so that he cannot be helped.
One must inspect which evil middah – characteristic – is strong within him, and after that, clean it out. Unlike like those men of desire who wallow in what they want, and the desire grows greater. It requires much slyness, to be “sly in yir’ah,” (Abaye, Ibid 17a) in opposition to, “the snake was sly,” (Bereishis 3:1). One who is lazy in weeding out an evil middah is not helped by all the legal fences and protections that he practices. For with any disease which is not cured from within… even the fence of the Torah, which protects and saves, will be useless because of his laziness (c.f. Rava, Sotah 21a; Bei’ur haGra Mishlei 24:31, 19:15, 25:4). (Even Sheleima 1:11)
The Gaon compares learning Torah to watering a garden. If you start with desirable plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants. But if you water weeds, you will only produce more weeds. Learning Torah without attention to character refinement will simply produce more forceful personalities with bad middos. As such, the Vilna Gaon addresses our dilemma from the end of section III, shedding light on the underlying causes of our crippling lack of direction, which prevents us from using the Torah for the proper purpose. To gain holiness through the Torah, there is a prerequisite to consciously work on eliminating our destructive middos. We must have a program to “weed our gardens” before watering our souls with Torah. This is how we join Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s class of the meritorious, for whom the Torah is a sam hachaim.
Rav Yisrael Salanter makes a similar point with a different metaphor. He compares poor middos to being a burglar. If a robber approaches a someone’s home without any tools, he isn’t particularly dangerous. However, if he comes bringing a lock-pick, weapons and other tools of the trade, he poses a threat to society. Similarly, someone with poor middos but no Torah does far less damage than someone who arms those bad middos with learning. Perhaps Rav Yisrael is referring to all the damage people can do when they justify their actions by attributing their destructive decisions to the Will of G-d or justifying them as really being for the best. The Gra contrasts Torah with and without middos, Rav Yisrael addresses bad middos with or without Torah, but both discuss how adding Torah to poor character makes things worse rather than better.
Returning to my earlier essay:
Do we make this a conscious goal in our current lifestyles?
The Vilna Gaon’s student, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, offers his own metaphor for the relationship between yir’as Shamayim and Torah:
According to the vast arrangement of the silo of yir’ah that the person prepared for himself, it is through that arrangement that the grain of Torah will be able to enter and be protected within him, according to how much he strengthened his silo.
It is [like] a father who divides grain for his sons. He divides and gives each one a measure of grain to match what the son’s silo can hold, which he [the son] prepared beforehand. For even if the father wishes and his hand is open to give him more, the son cannot receive more since his silo is not big enough to hold more. So too the father cannot now give him more. And if the son did not prepare even a small silo, then also the father can not give him anything at all – for he has no guarded place where it will remain with him.
So too Hashem, may His name be blessed: His “Hand” is open, as it were, to constantly bestow every person according to his reward with much wisdom and extra understanding – when it will be preserved by them and will be tied onto the slate of their hearts. Everything [is given] according to the volume of one’s “silo.” And if a person does not prepare even a small silo, which is that he does not, heaven forbid, have within him any yir’ah whatsoever for Him, may He be blessed, so too He, may He be blessed, will not bestow any wisdom at all, since it will not be preserved by him. For his Torah would become disgusting, heaven forbid, as our Rabbis, whose memories are a blessing, said. It is about this that the verse says, “the beginning of wisdom is yir’as Hashem,” (Tehillim 111). (Nefesh haChaim book IV, ch. 5)
The Vilna Gaon taught that without eliminating one’s poor middos first, Torah will reinforce those flaws rather than help refine the soul. Of our two descriptions of our communal problem, he is speaking in terms of the second one; the Torah is a tool for us to become the holy people Hashem created us to be, but the tool has to be used appropriately or else woefully limited.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner says, without first developing yir’ah, the positive middah of keeping the importance of G-d and the role He made us for in mind, we will not retain the Torah either, even on a basic level. His metaphor is akin to our first formulation – that without yir’as Shamayim, we cannot even embody the Torah we are trying to study, and thus only full implementation with developed yir’ah can even be termed true observance of Torah.
Refinement requires conscious effort in and of itself. Without first “weeding” and “building the silo,” we are left with nothing.
Until this point, Rav Shimon was arguing from a variant of the Vilna Gaon’s position — with the only difference being between the Vilna Gaon’s refined middos and the Shaarei Yosher’s person capable of bestowing good “now and in the future”. Both define the goal of a good Jew in terms of being a good person, and how Torah study is part of accomplishing that.
Now Rav Shimon switched to a point more similar to Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s. Not only does one need Torah to “water” one’s good middos, or to expand one’s “ani” to include their soul, and expansively more and more people, but without this ethical background, you won’t get anywhere with your Torah study, either.