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Labor of Love

Friday, 18 May, 2012 - 2:00 pm

It was Simchat Torah, and the disciples of Rabbi Mendel of Horodok, many of whom had journeyed for weeks to spend the joyous festival with their Rebbe, were awaiting his entrance to the synagogue for the recital of the preliminary Atah Hareisah verses and the hakafot procession. Yet the Rebbe did not appear. Hours passed, and still Rabbi Mendel was secluded in his room.

Finally, they approached Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who had studied with Rabbi Mendel in Mezeritch under the tutelage of the Great Maggid. Perhaps Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who was revered and loved by Rabbi Mendel, would attempt what no other Chassid would dare: enter the Rebbe’s room and ask him to join his anxiously awaiting followers.

When Rabbi Schneur Zalman entered Rabbi Mendel’s study, he found the Chassidic master deeply engrossed in his thoughts. “The Chassidim await you,” said Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “Why don’t you join them for the hakafot?”

“There are a hundred meanings to the verse Atah Hareisah,” cried Rabbi Mendel, “And I do not yet fully understand them all. I cannot possibly come out to recite the verse without a proper comprehension of its significance!”

“Rebbe!” said Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “When you will reach a full comprehension of the hundred meanings of Atah Hareisah, you will discover another hundred meanings you have yet to comprehend...”

“You are right,” said Rabbi Mendel, rising from his seat. “Come, let us go to hakafot.”

***

The many layers of Torah interpretation invite us into a world of intellectual ecstasy. When we have mastered the meaning of a Pasuk or Mishnah, we suddenly realize that there is yet a deeper explanation.

To many, this story illustrates the great expertise that Rabbi Mendel of Horodok possessed. After all, who of us expects to master 100 interpretations of one verse?!

***

But a closer analysis of the story reveals a deeper message.

If Rabbi Mendel was interested in mastering the 100 known interpretations prior to hakafot, why did he suddenly agree to go when Rabbi Schneur Zalman insisted that there were 100 more interpretations? Would that satisfy his desire for learning? And if he went because the Chassidim were waiting – well they were waiting before as well!

***

This week we read two Torah portions, Behar and Bechukotai (in the Diaspora). In the opening words of the second parsha we are reminded of the importance of Torah study. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, interprets the command to “follow in My statutes” to mean that you must toil in the study of Torah.

What does it mean to toil in Torah study? Is it not sufficient to instruct us to study Torah? Should it not be something we embrace because we enjoy it? Toil seems to connote hard labor, maybe even (self-imposed) forced labor. Why toil in Torah study?

***

If the goal of Torah study was simply discovery of ideas and concepts – holy as they may be – it would not necessitate toil. But Torah study is not simply about gaining wisdom.

G-d gave a gift to the Jewish people. As we prepare to celebrate Shavuot, we recognize that the gift is not simply phenomenal knowledge. The true gift is G-d Himself. He miraculously allows us an opportunity to discover and bond with His own being. No matter how wise a human may be, true perception of G-d is off-limits. Even connecting with Him is a miracle.

And that requires toil. We need to invest every fiber of our being into the effort of bonding with our source in Heaven.

***

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was not telling Rabbi Mendel simply to hurry because his spiritual journey was denying others the holiday ritual. He was reminding him that the true essence of Torah is not the interpretation we understand – but the connection our soul experiences.

And that Rabbi Mendel had already accomplished. Hence he was indeed ready for hakafot.

As we sit down with a volume of Talmud or Tanya, we must remember that the goal is not only the wisdom imparted – but the energy invested.

Oops, gotta go sweat some Torah study…

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