- 20.03 Learned Drashot and Simple Jews
Related by the Rav in his annual Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, Yeshiva University, January 18, 1972. (Yiddish).
I remember as a child that my father would deliver two drashot a year, on Shabbat Teshuva [before Yom KIppur], and Shabbat ha-Gadol [before Pesach]. It would be wonderful if this were also the norm for American rabbis. As a matter of fact, I will let you in on a secret. My grandfather did not even give these two drashot. When Reb Chaim first arrived in Brisk, he gave one drashah on Shabbat ha-Gadol and one drashah on Shabbat Teshuvah. Then he said that these drashot had exhausted him, and he ceased to engage in public preaching.
My father always gave these two drashot each year. What did the drashot consist of? My father dealt mainly with difficult texts in the Rambam [Maimonides]. He always analyzed complicated and complex rabbinic topics. Yet the shul in Khaslavichy was packed. It was a large, spacious Bet Medrash. It could accommodate over one thousand people, but it was always crowded beyond its capacity. Among the people there were some lomdim [rabbinical scholars] who could follow the intricacies of the drashah. Perhaps there were anywhere between a hundred and a hundred and fifty such scholars. Yet hundreds of non-learned Jews were also present. Many were poor Jews who barely knew how to pray. Peddlers, shoemakers, tailors, and porters were in the huge crowd. You should have seen how their eyes were totally fixed upon my father. You might imagine that my father was telling them a simple story instead of a profound drashah. They seemed to have endless joy from his presentation and the atmosphere in the shul during the drashah. Yet I can guarantee you that most of these Jews did not understand one word of my father's drashah. [emph mine]
Their participation was not a fulfillment of the command to study Torah. These simple Jews were not on the level of the hundred or hundred and fifty scholars who were also present. The latter fulfilled the precept of Torah study. They engaged in a give-and-take with my father. They questioned and answered and engaged in a dialogue with my father. These participants were true lomdim, and among them were hakhmei Yisrael, outstanding sages. However, while the other thousand listeners did not discharge the precept of Torah study, they certainly fulfilled the charge to be involved with Torah study. There is no greater achievement than to be involved with Torah study while standing for two hours and intently listening to a drashah which one does not comprehend. That is the meaning of the blessing, "La'asok be-divrei Torah" - to be involved with Torah study.
The truth is that this concept is stated in an open gemara. I do not have to tell you stories: "R. Zera says: The merit of attending a lecture lies in the running. Abaye says: The merit of attending the kallah sessions [public assemblies at which the Oral Tradition was expounded] lies in the crush" [Berakhot 6b]. Rashi explains that "the majority of the participants did not comprehend the lectures or could not properly repeat them afterwards." Yet they were rewarded for enduring the rush and crush engendered by the massive crowds at these public assemblies. They were rewarded for the hard benches on which they had to sit during the lectures. They gained merit because of the crowdedness and uncomfortable conditions they had to endure. This was truly the fulfillment of the precept to be involved with the study of Torah.
- In addition, there are many phases of Hasidism. It was first an intellectual revolution. To understand the context of its origin we have to study the documents preserved at the beginning of the eighteenth century. There was a tremendous fascination in those days for what we call pilpul, with what may be called sharpness, intellectual wit in the study of the Torah and Talmud. It represented a desire to sublimate feelings into thoughts, to transpose dreams into syllogisms. The sages expressed their grief in formulating keen theoretical difficulties and their joy in finding solutions to a contradiction of a disagreement between Maimonides, who lived in the twelfth century, and Rabbi Shlomo Aderetz, who lied in the thirteenth century. They had to speak to one another, there was no division in time, they were all together. And there were sharp challenges all the time. That was how they sublimated their entire existence. It was sharp but dry as dust, with all other aspects of existence ignored. For example, there were many books published. I myself know of thirty or forty anthologies. What was their favorite topic in those days? Pshetlach. Pshetl is the opposite of pschat, although the word pshetl is derived from pschat. Pschat means the literal simple meaning. Pshetl says the opposite: there is no literal meaning, there is always something behind it. In other words, when I say, "Give me a piece of bread," I don't really mean a piece of bread. I mean to answer a difficult passage in a commentary written in the twelfth century, which is noted by an authority of teh fifteenth century. Pshetl is always an attempt to find the dialectics in the most simple things, and this is what the talmudic scholars used to love.
- And when a preacher came to deliver a sermon, would he speak about daily human problems? No, he spoke of the terrible excitement about the fact that Laban, Jacob's father-in-law, did not treat Jacob well. Why didn't he treat Jacob well? Because he had a serious disagreement with him about an obscure subtle issue in Jewish criminal law. Since Jewish criminal law is very complicated, there are fifty-five possibilities of explaining it, and this is what caused the disagreement. Actually, Laban and Jacob disagreed the same way as did Abbaye and Rava in the third century. But it was dry like dust. Anybody who has gone through such an education would know what it means. What is left is astuteness, acumen. It is always syllogisms on top of syllogisms, a pyramid on top of three other pyramids. You're always walking from one roof to another. You don't just walk straight, you're always jumping, leaping; there's no straight thinking. The Jews loved this Talmudic study, but the soul was not rested. There was very little for the heart. It was always so dry, so remote from existence, without the slightest awareness that there was also an inner life in human problems. There were no human problems, only legal problems.
- Came the Baal Shem and changed the whole thing. He introduced a kind of thinking that is concerned with personal, intimate problems of religion and life. Some of these problems had smaller problems. Hasidism's major revolution was the opposition to what was generally accepted in Judaism- namely, that study is an answer to all problems. Study was considered more important than any other observance, certainly more important than prayer. Prayer was on the decline. It lost its vitality, it was deprived of spontaneity. One of the first tasks the Baal Shem faced was to bring about the resurrection of prayer. When he and his disciples went to a town, they would not just deliver a sermon about observance; they would stand and pray, thus setting an example of how to pray. To this day the Baal Shem remains one of the greatest masters of prayer in Jewish history.
- ~pages 36-37