Posted on | April 17, 2006 | By Guest Contributor | 4 Comments
A few months ago we posted and article Why I want to go to Yeshiva, Part 1 the Question. Today we bring you the sequel – Why I want to go to Yeshiva, Part 2 – Answers.
Now that the question’s been cleared up in my own mind, I think I can start to put down the answer for myself. And those two words are key – for myself. Because no matter what explanations I may come up with for this decision, ultimately if it’s something that I don’t believe in deeply then nobody else is going to accept it. And even if others aren’t going to accept it, I can feel a sense of pride and self-satisfaction in knowing I’m making the right decision.
As an Orthodox Jew, I have a sincere belief that there is an All-Powerful, All-Knowing Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. I also believe that this Creator wrote and transmitted directly to man what is known as the Torah – both Oral and Written – and furthermore that this Torah is not simply a history book or a set of tales, but rather it contains wisdom for living. It is a Divine instruction manual for how me are meant to lead our lives. These beliefs are not based, as many would assume, on “blind faith” but rather are a form of knowledge. They are the logical and rational conclusions at which I have arrived on my search for truth. I would be happy to share exactly how and why I arrived at these conclusions but that is beyond the scope of this post. So for the moment, we will just assume them to be true.
It makes sense that anyone wishing to make the most out of any endeavour should spend time studying exactly how to achieve the maximum from that experience. And since the Torah contains the guidelines and detailed instructions for exactly how to live, it follows that a vital step in living life properly should be studying the Torah – the eternal guidebook for our time on this planet. A Jew’s life is governed by the 613 mitzvot that we are commanded in the Torah and these mitzvot discuss everything about how we conduct ourselves – from the time we wake up in the morning until the time we go to sleep at night and everything in between. The mitzvot help us to develop a connection with the Infinite and reach the dizziest heights of spirituality, yet also how to deal with the most seemingly mundane and routine aspects of our lives – including business deals, eating and sleeping. There is even a section of Jewish law detailing how to conduct ourselves in the bathroom. Nothing is too intimate to be discussed. Simply put, there is no aspect of our daily behaviour that is not addressed by the Torah’s laws.
So there we have the first reason: the pragmatic one. In order to know how to play the game of life, you have to read the instruction manual.
Without downplaying the tremendous importance of this reasoning, there is an even more important reason for studying the Torah – the Torah itself tells us to. Yes, the Torah commands us exactly how we are to use our time, and the paramount way is to study the Torah. The idea here goes beyond just learning practical Halacha. There is a Torah concept that learning just one word is equivalent to doing all 613 mitzvot. Imagine the benefits one could accrue in a year of full-time study! And we’re not talking about fleeting pleasure here but rather eternal reward, building a life in the World to Come. Could there be any greater pleasure than that? We have all had moments when we have looked back on a day, a week or a longer period of time in our lives and felt despondency about the lack of accomplishment in that period, the wasted time that we can never reclaim. I can think of nothing more fulfilling than knowing that by learning Torah, I would be accomplishing something monumental each and every day – that my time would be put to the most constructive use possible.
And the benefits of Torah study are not limited to the metaphysical either – learning Torah teaches us not only how to act, but also how to think. Anybody who has delved into a piece of Gemara knows that it is far more stimulating than the toughest logic puzzle or crossword around. The Gemara is designed to sharpen our minds – all assumptions are challenged, arguments are put forward, questioned, proved correct, disproved and proved correct again until the only rational solution is found. For a person wishing to develop an analytical mind and train themselves to think critically, there is no better place to learn these skills than in the Torah. A Yeshiva is not, as many people mistakenly think, a place of cultish brainwashing, it is a place where people are encouraged to question, take nothing for granted and arrive at the truth by a means of objective and logical discovery. And the tools that are developed in this pursuit are those which help immeasurably in all areas of life.
Having laid down the tremendous importance and value of Torah study from both a spiritual and physical perspective, the question that now begs to be asked is why does it have to be done in Yeshiva? There are thousands of books out there, internet sites and speakers in just about any city you can think of who can give you access to Torah. So isn’t a little bit here and there on the side enough?
The answer is no.
Torah study is not easy. I have already mentioned how stimulating a piece of Gemara is to the brain and when relegated to just an hour a day after a busy schedule of college, work and other pursuits, this knowledge is immensely difficult to acquire let alone retain. In order to truly succeed at this task one needs to be immersed in it fulltime (at least initially) in order to gain the tools to pursue it further. By going to Yeshiva, one learns how to learn. And having that grounding, it is much easier after leaving to tap into the wealth of Torah sources I mentioned above and be able to learn at a high level for the rest of one’s life.
Recently I spoke with someone who is approaching retirement age. He learns at Yeshiva every Sunday morning and tries to learn as much as he can after work during weeknights when he returns home. He is anxiously anticipating his upcoming retirement so that he can dedicate himself to learning fulltime. I cannot help thinking that had he done this at a younger age before he started working, the quality of his learning all these years would have been vastly improved.
So the learning in Yeshiva is something that will affect all my learning for the rest of my life. Learning how to learn is a primary goal here and that’s also a reason why it requires a substantial time period (as opposed to a few weeks during a college break).
It is also extremely difficult in today’s world in the face of so many challenges and distractions to remain loyal to a Torah way of life. By spending a period of time in an intense Torah environment one is able to strengthen oneself and retain the inspiration necessary to keep striving for Torah ideals in our cutthroat modern society. I will agree with many of my critics who have said that living in a Yeshiva is very insular and provides a closed lifestyle. On the one hand I’m not so sure that isolating oneself from certain elements of today’s society is a bad thing, but even if I take the opposite view, isolation only becomes a bad thing when it’s permanent. The isolation of the Yeshiva world is done in order to prepare its graduates for when they are forced to return to the rest of society, to give them the tools to cope. Yes, isolation of this kind is very necessary and a lot more positive than exposure to much of the Western world and its values (or lack thereof).
As our Sages say, “If not now, when?” I am 19. I don’t have work or family commitments. I think the time to take off is now before I have so much on my plate that I’m not able to do so. Waiting for retirement so that I can finally take time off to study because I missed my earlier opportunities is not something I envision for my future.
So there we have it: Why study Torah? To learn how to act, to learn how to think, to achieve the most in this life and to develop a connection with the Infinite and build a life in the World to Come. And why must it be in Yeshiva? To acquire the tools so that I can continue learning my entire life, to get inspired, stay inspired and retain the moral fortitude to continue growing in the face of all the obstacles around me.
It makes a lot of sense to me. Whether my family can agree or not, I’m not sure, but that’s a lot less relevant to me now. I know I’m doing the right thing – and I’m guessing G-d feels that way too.