One day, during my wonderful years in Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, my friend “Richie” (name has not been changed, as I have no intention of protecting his anonymity) excitedly motioned for me to follow him into his dormitory room. As he opened his door, I heard a strange noise from inside. Hanging from a string attached to the middle of the ceiling was a flying cow with wings, circling the room, mooing, and yelping.
That unexpected sight stayed with me for some time. Even until today, when I see Richie, I think of that flying cow (among other things). In fact, the more I tried not to think about it, the more it stuck in my mind.
That isn’t really surprising, as everyone knows that the more you try not to think about something specific, the more you will inevitably think about that thing.
That being the case, it’s hard to understand what it means that during the dark days of Greek persecution prior to the Chanukah miracle, the Syrian-Greeks tried “to cause them to forget Your Torah.”
It doesn’t seem logical that they passed a decree that all Jews must forget all the Torah they know. How could they cause the Jews to forget Your Torah? Besides, the Jews are a stubborn people: If you tell them to forget something, that instruction alone will impel them to stubbornly maintain it.
Last week I was listening to a lecture by Rabbi David Lapin in which he was discussing the difference between Jewish wisdom and Greek wisdom. He made the following point:
“In secular studies, what’s important is that you master the material. In order to get a degree, you need to study, take notes, analyze, and be able to answer any questions on it – that’s mastery of the material.
“But that’s not the way Torah works.
“One of my great moments in yeshivah was after I had waited for a year to be admitted to the shiur of my rosh yeshivah, Rav Elya Mishkovsky. He finally agreed to consider me and told me to come for an examination. I was very excited, and came down to K’far Chasidim to his house. When he asked me what I wanted to be tested on, I replied that I would prepare whatever I needed to know. He replied that I can choose. I chose a particular part that I didn’t know well as of yet. He told me to go to the yeshivah and study it. When I asked how long I had, he said that I have as much time as I need. That sounded easy enough. I called my father and asked him if I could hire a tutor to help me learn the topic. My father replied that he would pay for whatever I needed to help me.
“I hired one of the top students in the yeshivah to learn with me everything there was to know about that topic. We learned well together until I was able to answer any question on the topic.
“Very confidently, I went back to the rosh yeshivah and told him I was ready. He was a very intimidating person under the best of circumstances, even more so when he was giving an entrance exam. I sat down and he asked me what I was learning. He took out a Gemara and I thought: It’s even open book. How easy. He looked at me and said, “Okay. So, what are your questions?” I stammered. “Questions? I don’t have any questions; I have answers. You can ask me any question on this topic and I can answer it.” He replied, “Why do I need your answers? I want to know how you think, not what you remember! I can see that by what questions you ask, not what answers you give.”
“Gemara methodology is question, question, question. And it has to be a good question. Because if you ask a question that wasn’t well articulated, you would be torn to shreds and would want the ground to open beneath you and swallow you up. And I speak from experience.”
Questions had to be good, and that was more important than answers.
“What do our children do in school? Do they give questions or answers? Twelve years of learning how to give answers – then they go to university and give more answers.
“What about how Gemara is taught? Are students encouraged to ask questions or just to give answers?
“What about at the Shabbos table? Do parents just ask the questions that are sent home by teachers, encouraged to just spit back the answers?
“That’s not Torah. The content is Torah, but the method is Greek!
“Hashem isn’t a spreadsheet, or system of data. Hashem is a completely organic, holistic system of dynamic movement where nothing stays the same.
“Gemara is not about mastering the information, but about being mastered by it.
“Greek learning and all western culture is about mastering the material; in Torah learning, it’s about being mastered by the material. It becomes your master, and you submit to it.
“The closest thing to Torah knowledge is music, where you just lose yourself to it. If you start analyzing the sounds, science, and vibrations – that’s not music anymore, it’s physics.
“You can turn Gemara into physical chemistry, law, zoology, and science. But that’s not Gemara anymore.”
When I repeated this idea to my esteemed colleague, Rabbi Dr. Joel Berman, he replied by relating the following:
“When I was a student in graduate school, they would often bring in speakers who would share their research while giving long, boring lectures. One such professor came and was presenting. I wasn’t particularly interested and was only listening with half an ear. But a girl sitting a few seats away was listening intensely.
“At one point, she raised her hand and very respectfully asked the professor about something he said which seemed to contradict something he said earlier. The professor replied by lashing out at her, shouting how her question was idiotic and the questioner doesn’t deserve to be in a graduate program. The woman ran out in tears.
“I thought her question was valid. It seems that the presenter didn’t have a good answer, so he replied by trashing the questioner and making her think it was a foolish question.
“A few years later, I was learning in Ohr Somayach and I approached the rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Yisroel Rokowsky. I asked him about something he said that seemed to contradict something else I had seen in Rav Schwab’s sefer. As soon as I asked the question, Rabbi Rokowsky stood up and hugged me, lifting me off the ground, and then kissing me on the head. He told me that it was such a good question that he wasn’t going to go to sleep that night until he figured out an answer.
“On Shabbos morning, when I walked into shul, he was waiting for me with a sefer open and a big smile on his face. He proceeded to share with me the answer he thought of.”
What an incredible difference in the way to approach a question!
Torah is not something to be mastered as much as it is to be internalized. The Syrian-Greeks did not seek to make us forget Torah, but to forget “Your Torah.” They wanted to reduce Torah into just another branch of wisdom, alongside philosophy, science, and mathematics. The Greeks loved wisdom and they appreciated the wisdom of Talmud. But for us, Torah is life itself. When Torah is just another topic, it ceases to be “Your Torah,” the Torah of Hashem.
We have to try to teach our children to ponder, wonder, think, and question. They should not accept the timeless wisdom of Torah at face value, but should seek to understand it for themselves. That is how Torah becomes internalized. The deeper we plunge its depth, the more connected we become with its “Author.”
The light of Chanukah is reflective of the deep internal light of Hashem’s Torah. It’s a time to re-dedicate ourselves not just to Torah learning, but much more so to Torah studying and internalizing.