Rav Chaim Volozhin – A Tree of Life ‎

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 13

			Ask people with some knowledge of the Vilna Gaon to name any of his students. He had hundreds ‎of them, many of whom were highly influential Torah leaders in their own right. A well-informed ‎person might be able to name three. Typical ‘yeshiva’ students will probably stop at one. That ‎single student, however, is not famous for being a student of the Gaon, but as the founder of the ‎modern yeshiva movement. His name is Rav Chaim Volozhin (he had no last name but is known by ‎the name of the town where he was from – Volozhin). ‎
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Prior to him, there were plenty of phenomenal Torah scholars - the Gaon being the greatest. ‎Typically, however, the average adolescent boy was apprenticed to some trade at an early age ‎‎(usually around 13) and spent the rest of his life struggling to make a living and raise a family as a ‎faithful, devout, but simple Jew. Advanced study was out of the question for all but a few. A ‎student of Rav Chaim described the situation before Rav Chaim started his yeshiva as ‘chaos ‎reigned in the Jewish world. Nobody knew what a yeshiva was and nobody had heard about Torah ‎study in public. Torah, Mishna and holy books were accessible to elected and very rich people only. ‎Even in town synagogues a complete set of the six Mishna and Gemara books were lacking. There ‎was no demand for them, they were not in use’. ‎
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Rav Chaim started the Volozhin Yeshiva, which he called Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) in 1803. It grew ‎from a dozen students at its outset to over 100 at his death in 1821. It attracted the most promising ‎young men from all over the Poland/Lithuania region and developed them into Torah leaders of ‎the next generation. More importantly, it set the standard for hundreds of future institutions that ‎were modeled after it. To this day, the yeshiva remains the primary mode of teaching advanced ‎Torah in the Orthodox world. ‎
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The name Etz Chaim had clear implications. Aside from including the name of its founder, it also ‎referred back to a verse in Proverbs (3:18), ‘It is a Tree of Life (Etz Chaim) to those who grasp it, ‎and those who support it are fortunate’. This verse has classically been interpreted as a reference ‎to the Torah. This was how Rav Chaim perceived his institution – as a Tree of Life, for that is ‎precisely how he saw the role of the Torah study in Judaism. He considered intense Torah study to ‎be the essence of Jewish life. ‎
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His major work, Nefesh Hachaim (Soul of Life) emphasizes this point. It was written as a response ‎to the Hassidic focus on the emotional and the spiritual as opposed to the intellectual. It ‎masterfully combines Talmudic and Midrashic sayings with deep mystical insight culled mostly from ‎the Zohar, into a complete picture of God, the human soul, prayer, the yetzer hara, and Torah ‎study, among other things. The work is deep and complex and not easily accessible. In the course ‎of the many topics it covers we find the following (4:13): ‘It is through involvement in the holy ‎Torah that God’s purpose in creation is fulfilled, which was only so that Yisrael would be involved in ‎the Torah…’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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This is not some isolated statement that Rav Chaim made out of the blue. Nefesh Hachaim contains ‎four sections, only the fourth of which dealing with Torah study. This fourth section is extremely ‎detailed and complex, with a considerable number of sources quoted and interpreted. Rav Chaim ‎goes to great ends to explain what the essence of Torah study is and why it is so important. This is ‎not just a pep talk to try to inspire people of his generation to put more time into study, or even to ‎encourage the students of his yeshiva to strive harder in their studies. This is a profound ‎examination of what Torah study really is and what it means to study it properly. To some degree, ‎it has become a blueprint for the overall goals of the yeshiva system today. ‎
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What is this blueprint? To answer this question we will once again use the ‘who, what, where, ‎when, why, how’ framework. As far as the ‘why’, the primary goal of Torah learning, according to ‎Rav Chaim, is not to gain a sense of oneness with God. Nor is it to be seen as a method to purify ‎the mind from non-spiritual thoughts. Rav Chaim stressed what Torah learning wasn’t in order to ‎distinguish his approach from the increasingly popular Hassidic system in which the purpose of ‎Torah study was for precisely those things. He was trying to bring it back to what it was originally – a ‎largely intellectual endeavor to understand all aspects of Torah in all their depth and breadth. ‎Oneness with God, he explained, was a wonderful side benefit of Torah study, but it wasn’t the ‎essence. Purifying of the thoughts was a necessary preparatory step for Torah study, and ‎absolutely essential if one truly wants to delve to its depths, but it was a condition and not the ‎goal. ‎
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As far as the ‘what’, Torah study is exactly what it sounds like. It means studying all aspects of the ‎Torah as it has developed through the millennia. This means Chumash, Tanakh, Mishna, Talmud, ‎Midrash, Halacha, commentary, mysticism, philosophy, and whatever else may come along. One ‎should not study one area to the exclusion of the others, but there is no question that the Talmud ‎is widely considered a domain that includes all the rest. Hence the focus in Volozhin and almost ‎every other subsequent yeshiva has been Talmud study. While this concentration on Talmud has ‎had its share of criticism, it remains a remarkably effective way of sustaining a level of diligence and ‎interest that frequently defies explanation. By any definition of the term, it’s challenging. ‎
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Who? Yeshiva study has classically been the domain of Jewish males. They are all required to ‎immerse themselves in Torah study, though in practice only small percentage do so on a serious ‎level. The 21st century has seen what are widely believed to be the highest numbers of yeshiva ‎students ever, with tens of thousands engaged in some form of full time study. Why it has been ‎restricted to males is a matter of Jewish role models, scriptural interpretation, rabbinic law, and ‎assumptions about the human mind. In recent years, women have gotten in on the act, with ‎women’s yeshivas dotting the landscape in Jerusalem and other places. They tend to be every bit ‎as rigorous as their male counterparts, but with emphasis on practical applications concerning ‎women’s issues in Halacha. ‎
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Where? Torah study could be done anywhere – in the home, on the bus or train, in the office, in ‎the synagogue, etc. Classically, a special room is designated for intense Torah study, known as a ‎Beit Midrash (study hall). Sometimes these halls double as a synagogue, but frequently they are ‎dedicated just for study alone. They are generally on the austere side, with fancy decorations ‎being reserved for ornate synagogues. They tend to be loaded with books – large books filled with ‎Hebrew writing of all sorts covering the pages. These are the codes of Talmud and Halacha and the ‎associated commentaries. They have a daunting look to them, like they are impenetrable to all but ‎a few cognoscenti. Recent years have seen the invasion of the computer into the Beit Midrash, ‎with entire libraries found on a single disk or card. In all probability, all serious yeshivas and their ‎students will soon find tiny computers complementing their massive libraries. ‎
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When? Torah study is required at all times. It takes precedence even over making a living, though ‎on a practical level this is rarely advisable. Rav Chaim’s students were unmarried, but he was ‎insistent that they devote every waking moment to intense study for no reason other than to ‎understand and expand Torah knowledge. He even set up the schedule at Volozhin so that Torah ‎was studied in the Beit Midrash around the clock. He saw this as the ultimate fulfillment of the goal ‎of the Torah itself – that Jews give it their all and never allow it to be completely abandoned. ‎
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He makes no apologies about this being an elitist stance. He was very aware that most people ‎simply did not have either the intellectual powers or the time necessary to achieve the lofty levels ‎for which he was shooting. Nevertheless, Rav Chaim strongly advocated that those who were ‎unable to reach these levels should strive for whatever level they could reach. Time and energy ‎are always short, but that should be no excuse to dismiss Torah study altogether. Jewish liturgy ‎describes Torah thoughts as nothing less than ‘our life and the length of our days, and upon them ‎we meditate day and night’. It’s a high standard, but it has proven profoundly true for the Jewish ‎people in their endless wanderings throughout the last 2000 years. ‎
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Practical ‎
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How? How does one go about climbing this endless peak that has no shortage of challenges, makes ‎ever-increasing demands, and promises no material reward? The first piece of advice is to just ‎start. There are a million and one avenues available to get going in Torah study. Online ‎opportunities are now dime-a-dozen. Books can be found in over a dozen languages with English ‎and Hebrew selections numbering in the thousands. If you only have ten minutes a day, so get ‎going with ten minutes a day. If you can only fit it in while stuck in morning rush hour, that will be ‎your designated time. The key is to make it happen. ‎
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But there is no substitute for quality time in any Torah study program. This means devoting ‎whatever amount of time one is able, completely to Torah study. The cell phone gets turned off, all ‎distractions are somehow eliminated, and concentration is turned on. Even under ideal conditions ‎it won’t be easy to maintain this state. But with practice and dedication, anybody can achieve a ‎certain amount of success. Almost invariably, a teacher of some sort is necessary. These are ‎available in Jewish communities, online, and via the telephone. Torah teachers love nothing more ‎than an eager student, who asks questions, challenges assumptions, and contributes his or her ‎own answers. A student-teacher relationship in Torah study frequently expands into other areas ‎and becomes extremely deep. It could easily last a lifetime. ‎
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If one gets good enough, one reaches the point of being able to ‘do it’ on one’s own. This is a truly ‎gratifying achievement, with the rewards coming in the form of awareness that one is actually ‎adding to the ever-growing body of Torah knowledge and understanding. To be able to penetrate ‎through to the depths of a topic, whether it be an understanding of a passage in the Chumash, a ‎difficult section of the Talmud, or a philosophical or mystical idea from Jewish worlds that no longer ‎exist, and to develop that understanding to the point where some new insight emerges, is a kind ‎of Nirvana of Torah study. This is the real ‘why’ of Torah study – sensing a personal connection to ‎God’s Torah by becoming a ‘contributing partner’ in its composition. The feeling of fulfillment is ‎unlike any other. It feeds the soul with a kind of energy and anchors its bearer through the ‎superficiality of the material world. It is truly ‘a tree of life to those who grasp it’. ‎
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Food for Thought ‎
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Torah study tends to focus on obscure topics that frequently are hopelessly outdated and ‎irrelevant except that they enable the understanding of something from Jewish tradition. Is there ‎any way to update it to fit into modern society and contemporary issues?‎



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