The verse (Genesis 47:28) begins, “And Yaakov lived in Egypt for 17 years…” Is there more going on here? I would argue that Yaakov’s first 17 years were lived and enjoyed with Yosef, before Yosef got sold. Now Yaakov’s last 17 years take place in the same vicinity as Yosef. What symbolized their pleasure, their chiyut? Learning and knowing the Torah well (though this last transmission took place through Ephraim, Yosef’s son, who studied by Yaakov).
At the recent Siyum HaShas, as I was walking by the concession stands, I happened to look up at one of the TVs and I saw the part where one of Reb Chaim Kanievsky’s relatives was asking Reb Chaim to give a blessing to those who just finished learning Shas. Reb Chaim gave the bracha that they should also “know Shas.” I repeated his comment to someone who had to think about it for a minute and said, “Oh, not just learn Shas, but know Shas, an entirely different story.”
Upon reflecting on Reb Chaim’s words, I was reminded of a story my uncle recorded in his sefer on Chumash where he brings down that the Griz was walking with Rav Elchanan Wasserman and they were discussing Torah. As they were speaking in Torah, Rav Elchanan mentioned that perhaps they should look inside the sefer to read the words in order to get reward for otiot machkimot (the letters bring wisdom). The Griz responded that such a notion only applies to Torah SheBichtav and not Torah Shebaal Peh, for regarding Torah SheBaal Peh, it’s the understanding of the sugya that brings fulfillment of Talmud Torah, not the reading of the letters.
I thought of a rationale for this. The Divine word we will never understand. Therefore, there is no requirement to understand what the words mean. But the oral law is based on man’s toil and efforts. For this, no one receives an excuse, for if one truly wants to understand what the sages debated in (which is obviously Divine in nature as well), knowing of course that we will never reach their level, it can be done. Divinity we will never understand; man’s discourse that is the product of debate, however, is open to be understood.
It may be said that when one loves something, the comprehension and remembrance thereof becomes easier (a trick of the Vilna Gaon). If so, how does one build up such a love for the Gemara that seems so complex and at times so difficult to conquer, so that retention and understanding is possible as prescribed by Reb Chaim? My late relative, Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, zt”l, the previous Tchebiner rosh yeshiva, said that indeed, the early stages of learning are by definition difficult and backbreaking, offering no feelings of pleasure, but he notes that after continued toil and perseverance the sweetness will be immeasurable, a piece of counsel that can make “knowing” the Gemara a reality.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue noted that just “knowing Shas” without having the pages affect the heart to engage in gemilut chasadim is also missing the point. Shas and character go hand in hand.
Many rabbanim emphasize that in the times of ikvasa d’Mishicha, both Torah and gemilut chasadim are the keys to strengthen one’s standing to be ready for the ultimate redemption.
Steven Genack is the author of “Articles, Anecdotes & Insights,” Genack/Genechovsky Torah from Gefen Press.