Since we have already written about the basic words of a brachah, this segment will focus on the end of the first brachah of the Birchos HaTorah, as said by Ashkenazim. Regardless of our specific custom, the lessons apply equally to all.
As an introduction, I would like to point out that this segment, though it focuses on learning Torah, applies to all men and women. It applies for a working man spending a relatively minor part of his day learning, since he is putting forth his best efforts, given his circumstances. For a married woman, she is an equal partner in her husband’s learning if she encourages and supports him in his learning; and if she has children and encourages them to learn, she is supporting their learning, as well. For all women, they can be learning parts of Torah that apply to them, as well as financially supporting Torah.
The key word of this brachah is “la’asok,” and this word, with its many lessons, will be our focus in this segment. This brachah is a brachah thanking Hashem for separating and sanctifying us through His commandment to learn Torah. We would have expected the brachah to reflect this mitzvah of learning Torah by using the word “lilmod.” Why is the word “la’asok” used, and what does it mean ?
We can translate “la’asok b’divrei Sorah” in a few ways:
- To be busy with words of Torah (to make it our “business”)
- To toil in the words of Torah (Pathway to Prayer)
- To engross ourselves in the words of Torah (ArtScroll)
- To toil and exert ourselves in the words of Torah (Taz)
We have just suffered the tremendous loss of our Gadol HaDor, HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, zeicher tzadik li’vrachah. He was known for his extreme “hasmadah” (diligence in learning Torah). He knew and reviewed the entire breadth of Torah every year since he was 17 and has been referred to as a “sefer Torah.” To accomplish that, he maintained a rigorous learning schedule (while still devoting many hours to help people who lined the street to speak to him), exerting himself and toiling in Torah all his life. Perhaps what differentiated him is that he did not place any outside information into his mind other than Torah, and he did not speak any extra words he didn’t need to. His father zt”l, known as the “Steipler Gaon,” who was also a gadol ha’dor, would say that his son had a pure mind and a pure mouth. Apparently, Rav Chaim did not even know the street names near his home. That was extraneous information that did not need to enter his mind. When he learned, he was totally engrossed in his learning. A group of boys (from Queens) once entered his room, and he did not notice them until a few minutes later, when someone went over to inform him. There is so much more to say about Rav Chaim zt”l. We only mentioned this one aspect because it relates to the word “la’asok.”
The definition of the epitome of “la’asok” was Rav Chaim zt”l. His “business” was Torah. He was constantly toiling and engrossing himself in Torah. He knew where every piece of “merchandise” was. We include with permission the following excerpt from a special tribute in Mishpacha Magazine:
The periodical Yeshurun, in a piece focusing on Rav Nachum Partzovitz, the late rosh yeshivah of Mir, relates the following incident: Rav Nachum was once walking through the beis midrash, and two bachurim who were schmoozing saw him approaching. To cover for themselves, one of them looked in the Gemara N’darim, which they were learning at the time, and started reading aloud, “Tanu Rabbanan,” a standard phrase found countless times throughout Shas. Rav Nachum stopped and told them that the phrase “Tanu Rabbanan” is found nowhere in Maseches N’darim.
The story was recounted to Rav Chaim, who smiled and said that this is true; however, the masechta does include – just once – the words “d’tanu Rabbanan.”
Back when it happened, the incident made the rounds and was recounted to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, who explained with a mashal. Say you walk into the local hardware store that carries all sorts of items, including many odds and ends. Nobody knows where anything is except the store owner, who knows where everything is – because, after all, it is his “eisek,” his business. To Rav Chaim, Rav Shteinman explained, the entire Torah was his eisek...and was therefore at his fingertips.
That intimate familiarity with every detail of Torah stood in contrast to his utter lack of involvement in things that were not his eisek.
How does Rav Chaim’s awesome dedication to Torah apply to us? Each of us on our own level should ask: What can I do to be more devoted to Torah? The world is now sorely lacking, because Rav Chaim is no longer with us. It will take a combined national effort to try to close the gaping hole left with his passing.
Consider trying to emulate Rav Chaim in some way. For some, that means raising the bar in our own diligence in learning. It may mean cutting down on the worthless information with which we fill our minds. It may mean cutting down the amount of time we “kill” – or, better phrased, the amount of life we kill. Let us think about how we can make Torah our business.
For others, the same application can apply to other areas, outside of learning Torah. Let us contemplate how we can rededicate ourselves by exerting ourselves, toiling, and making our business the business of tz’dakah, chesed, speaking kindly, tefilah, and whatever areas of Torah observance we are drawn to. Each person will have his or her unique gift to bring to the world. Let us learn from Rav Chaim to step up our efforts and focus on what is truly important and start working on blocking out what is not. Let us ask ourselves: Will I be a better person? Will the world be better if I read or watch or listen to this?
Reciting the brachah of “la’asok” every morning should serve as our wakeup call each day: What can I do today to engross myself in Torah (learning Torah and living Torah in my unique way) and focus on what is truly important ?
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or simply search for “TorahAnytime Rabbi Finkelman.”
You can direct any questions or comments to Eliezer Szrolovits at 917-551-0150.