To my mind, probably the most difficult Chumash to learn properly is Chumash Bereishis. The events, the people, the historical impact are basically surreal. It is actually much easier to “deal with” Matan Torah than to understand Avraham Avinu’s waging war against the alliance of Kings, the story of Sodom’s destruction and Lot’s being saved, King Avimelech abducting Sarah Imeinu, the story of the purchase of Me’aras Hamachpeilah, Yitzchak Avinu’s shidduch crisis, in fact almost all of the “stories” of Bereishis.
There is no dearth of mefarshim who deal with these issues. But many times we get caught up with vertlach, with a cute or sharp or even a pithy insight, and this causes us to lose sight of the larger picture — the pshat in what was happening, what forces were bring invoked, what larger issues were being resolved.
I came across a piece in Chovos Halevavos last week that is fundamental, vital, and basic to our growth as people and as Jews. It also holds the answer and the key to the issues I have just raised — issues which resonate throughout the entire Sefer Bereishis, and the entire Torah — and everything we do, throughout our lives!
The piece is in the sha’ar called Sha’ar Cheshbon Hanefesh, the Gate of Introspection. In this gate, Rabbeinu Bachya declares that we can only come to self-improvement through introspection (cheshbon hanefesh) and the realization of certain truths that we tend to otherwise keep from ourselves. It is only when we begin to commune with our own selves that we will come to greater and greater realizations and deeper growth. Rabbeinu Bachya defines introspection as an act of exploration — contemplating your circumstances in order to identify what you have already done, and what you still have to do. Introspection thus encourages us to determine our obligations to Hashem.
The extensive third chapter in this sha’ar delineates the things one should come to realize in the course of his introspection. And, of course, in a most typical statement, Chovos Halevavos says that each prat that he teaches here really requires much more explanation and definition than he was able to give.
It is cheshbon number 24 (out of 30): that one should be introspective, and demand that any idea or subject matter that you have learned regarding Hashem, His Torah, the statements of the Sages, the themes of prayer, all that you may have learned about these things since your childhood, and the subsequent years as you continued to learn, up till the years into your adult life — all of that should always be subject to renewed reflection and scrutiny. Subtle ideas in the hands of one with younger, more limited, understanding are completely different in the hands of one with a more mature, broadened grasp and insight. And as one gets older and studies more and more, the clearer and deeper will he perceive and comprehend.
Therefore, says Chovos Halevavos, do not be satisfied with the solutions and understandings that you have reached when you began learning things that are unclear or complex. Rather, now that your intelligence is more mature, more developed, and clearer, and you are able to delve into things that much deeper, you should indeed do so, and do so as one who has never learnt these things before! Study them, delve into them, analyze the words, the meanings, the subtletie, the obvious, the not-so-obvious, the revealed, the more hidden, what is logical and what seems to be not-so-logical. And so, too, should you approach your tefillos! Examine the words, the intentions, and how you are going to use those words yourself when you ask things of Hashem. Stop acting the way you did when you were younger, when you just said the words, saying them anyway it occurred to you to say them, without knowing their true meaning and their inner message.
Let us pause (the Chovos Halevavos has quite a bit more to say, maybe we’ll continue this next week…) and absorb what we are being told. When I pick up a Chumash Bereishis, or a Tehillim, or a siddur, or any sefer teaching me Toras Hashem, I have a choice: I can say it, or learn it, or daven the way I have been doing for the last decade or more. I can be satisfied with the level that I was on a year ago, five years ago, the way I learned chumash when I was starting to read it… OR I can take out a sefer, a siddur, a Tehillim, and act, in the powerful words of the Chovos Halevavos, as if I have never learned it before! I am not looking for vertlach, as if I already understand the ideas presented and am looking for an interesting, cute, thought. Rather, start fresh, and look to understand the basic ideas and hashkafos being expounded! And with my increased seichel and maturity, well, maybe this year I will learn Ramban on the Chumash; maybe I will study Hirsch; maybe I will get one of those sefarim on Rashi… Indeed, why should I continue year after year after year reading the Rashi with only the same level of understanding as before, comprehending and not comprehending the same things, understanding the story on the same level that a grade school child understands it?! Why shouldn’t I figure out, grasp, or interpret that Gemara, that Medrash on the level that I am capable of doing today! That, says Chovos Halevavos, is the trick! NOT to be satisfied with my previous understandings, the perceptions that I formed when I was younger and when my comprehension was less mature. DO NOT settle for the way you have always understood! Do you really want to always daven the same way you have davened five, or ten, years ago? Refresh yourself, drop all preconceived notions, and use your present kochos to approach your understanding of Torah and avodah. Biz a hundrehd un tvantzig!
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