Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Bitter Waters of Torah

In an introduction to Chancellor Norman Lamm's book, Faith And Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought, he includes a letter which I found remarkably surprising:

    My brother and my friend! In truth, how bitter are the "bitter waters" [of Torah] that pass over us! For in the beginning, the Torah is itself yet bitter. The reason for this is that we may distinguish between one who has a true Israelite soul and one whose soul issues from the multitude that accompanied Israel out of Egypt. For "no stranger shall approach thereto," and the initial bitterness of Torah will discourage one who is disqualified from tasting of the precious sweetness of the light of Torah [that appears afterwards].

    It is written in the book Berit Menuhah that a scholar who denies the Torah and becomes a heretic, Heaven forbid, does so because some of the "bitter waters" passed over him and he drank from them and he was not able to bear it, and therefore he studied and he rejected.

    It is unecessary to state that at the beginning, when one first undertakes to serve God and to accept upon himself the yoke of Torah, that he tastes of the bitterness of death. Even a completely righteous person must submit to these bitter pains every day and every time and every hour, in order that he might thereby enter into the light of life and the way of the righteous.

    Therefore, accept upon yourself all this bitterness, and the Almighty in His great compassion will let you taste of the pleasantness of the world-to-come while you are yet in this world. So will all this bitterness be transformed into sweetness, into light for the soul.

    But above all, my brother, keep silent, keep silent. Accept all this in love. then there will shine upon you the light of the King of all life.

    (from Netiv Mitzvotekha, p. 80)
    by R. Yitzhak Isaac Yehudah Yehiel Safran, the Rebbe of Komarno

    ~page x
Now, anyone who claims to understand to what exactly the Rebbe of Komarno was referring is engaging in speculative conjecture. And hence I freely admit I do not know what he meant when he stated that the waters of Torah are initially bitter, and that it is only after striving onward that one is able to see the light and taste of their sweetness.

But I thought that for all of us, and as Dr. Lamm notes later on in his essay, this is a beautiful concept. For we struggle with everything that we find difficult, and our struggles do not weigh easily on us; each one of us bears his own burden and fights his own way through a swamp of confusion. And it is gratifying to know that simply because something seems bitter right now, or difficult to do or keep, does not preclude it from being sweet in the end, and for God to shine his everlasting light upon us.


Anonymous said...

"Without illumination, we struggle with the forces of the world; we labor for a living; we struggle to maintain our power and position; we compete for riches or honors. Often we war with our own friends and even find ourselves at war with ourselves. There is no security in personal possessions even after the battle to acquire them has been won.

Spiritual illumination comes to us in a measure with our first investigation of truth. We believe that we are seeking good, or truth; whereas the light has begun to shine in our consciousness compelling us to take the steps we have since taken. Every increase of our spiritual understanding means more light appearing and dispelling the darkness of sense. This inflow of illumination will continue until we come to the full realization of our true identity as "the light of the world".

Chana,you are an amazing young woman! Always probing and searching,honest a moving forward no matter what. Keep on struggling well for you will be blessed.

Anonymous said...

what is so surprising about this?

Chana said...

anonymous 4:41,

I've never heard Torah described as "bitter" before.

Anonymous said...

Chana - see taanit 30a and the opinion of R' Yehuda that one can't learn on tisha b'aav even something new - see also rashi on the prior opinion - even though it's tzaar in the short run, in the long run pikudei hashem yesharim mesamchei lev!

Joel Rich

yitz said...

I was really surprised to hear the Komarna mentioned in this context.. i'm in the middle of learning Netiv Mitzwotecha right now and I imagine a big part of the difficulty in understanding is that (1) its translated into english and (2) the whole book builds on itself so parts taken in a vacuum are missing out on lots of their actual depth -- though each netiv and each 'letter' (chapter) do seem to stand on their own.

The Komarana's Torah is very much tied to the inner sweetness, the pnimiut, of the Torah.

I have to agree with you on face value, i don't know exactly what the bitterness of Torah would be.. though mussar does make me depressed. The most bitter thing about Torah learning for me is the need to stop either because of worldly necesities, or because of the sheer exhaustion from learning.

To me it would seem that at each level of learning there are newer and higher levels of bitterness hiding in turn deeper levels of sweetness.

Mindy Schaper said...

You know that the Kamarna Rebbe is my great-great- grandfather. (I don't know the line, can't be sure which one)

I think what this means is that Torah is reality, no more and no less. Torah gives us permission to make what we want out of the world. Since humanity simply messes up, and since we as individuals fall, we have to come to terms with our human failings. this is the bitterness of the Torah. It is the bitterness of seeing the disparity of who we are and who we could be. But it is only through this that we can come to see the light inside of each os us, and work to bring it out.

Mindy Schaper said...

Btw, a relevant anecdote pertaining to mourning over the Churban and Galus on Tisha B'Av that I posted at Moshe's ( is relevant here:

Interestingly enough, this year Tisha B'Av was the first time I really understood what mourning was. I was going through a very hard breakup, and trust me- I'd never experienced a Tisha B'Av like this before. I sat there on the floor and cried and cried. It was an experience I'd never experienced before, of mourning for the loss of potential, for the loss of conection, and over what could've been. This is how we should feel about our own lost severed relationship with Hashem. It's exactly the same thing, and it only hit me so strongly and deeply this year. The most beautiful things come out of the most bitter places...

I hope you found in insightful.