Thursday, February 13, 2014

lo mistaya milsa -- brains alone are not enough

My family likes to makes fun of me when we talk about the parsha on Shabbos and I sometimes say things like, “Yeah, I wrote that up back in…. “ which of course no one remembers.  So for the benefit of those who were not reading this blog in 2006, I want to revisit a sugya in Kesubos 60.  Abaye was asked a shayla and gave an answer.  When he came before Rav Yosef, Rav Yosef corrected the psak.  Abaye ran after the person he gave the wrong answer to, but was unable to catch him.  Said Abaye: I used to think that the reason a talmid cannot rule on halacha in the presence of his rebbe is merely out of respect.  Now I know that it’s because he will not have the siyata d’shemaya necessary to get the right answer.  I knew the halacha in this case [before hearing it from Rav Yosef] and I still I got it wrong.

If you think you can pasken halacha from a Bar Ilan CD or just by doing reseach into the sources that pertain to a particular sugya, I have no idea how you read this gemara.  It makes no sense.  Abaye knew the halacha.  He had done the research.  He was an accomplished scholar.  Yet he still got it wrong because he lacked one crucial ingredient – “siyata d’shemaya.”  That’s something you can’t get from a CD and no amount of research can provide.   

Torah is not an academic discipline.  Success does not depend only on brains, on creativity, on academics.  The Chazon Ish asked a great question: Why don’t we have any R’ Akiva Eigers these days?  It’s the same 2800 or so blatt in shas now as existed back then.  We now have computers to help us, we have Mossad haRav Kook texts of the Rishonim, we have electric lights so we can stay up all night and learn in heated homes in the middle of winter.  So where are the R’ Akiva Eigers of our world?  The Chazon Ish answers that we are just as smart as R’ Akiva Eiger; we don’t lack brains.  What we lack is the yiras shamayim of R’ Akiva Eiger.

Earlier in the week we were talking about the Avnei Nezer because it was his yahrzeit, so let me tell you another beautiful Shem m’Shmuel.  The Midrash writes that for 40 days Moshe was on Har Sinai learning, and every day at the end of the day he promptly forgot everything that he had covered.  At the end of 40 days he had nothing.  At that point Hashem gave him the Torah as a gift; Hashem planted the knowledge in Moshe’s brain.  The Shem m’Shmuel asks: So what was the point of struggling with it for 40 days?  Why didn’t Hashem just cut to the chase and give Moshe that gift on day 1?

The answer is that gifts from Hashem have to be earned.  The Koreans who came to Ponevich to see what the study of Talmud is all about because they thought that studying this book, this academic discipline, will make you smarter got it all wrong.  Toil over Torah won’t really make you smarter or increase your IQ – but it will make you a better person.  That’s what Hashem wants; that’s what Moshe accomplished in those 40 days.  If you pull that off, then the Torah comes m’meila as a gift; if you fail, then “lo mistaya milsa,” you can be an Abayei or even a Moshe Rabeinu and are just not going to get it.


  1. Shkoyach. That gemara is the best response I've seen to this whole mess.

    Yuter says "R Shachter SOMEHOW (emphasis added) distinguishes between “researching” a difficult topic and being intuitively knowledgeable of all the relevant factors.

    That distortion of R Shachter's completely reasonable comment (and the mockery of the "somehow") bothers me more than anything else in this whole issue.

  2. > Toil over Torah won’t really make you smarter or increase your IQ – but it will make you a better person.

    I loved this whole post except for that line. As lots of blogs out there like to point out, people who toil over Torah aren't necessarily better people. It's not the learning, it's not the toiling, it's the yiras Shamayim.

    1. The ba'alei mussar would agree that Torah alone won't do it, but that's because we are learning with our brains alone and not with our heart.