THE ESSENCE OF LIFE
Rabbi Israel Chait
Transcribed by a student from the 1990 Avos Shiurim
Returning to Maimonides point that one’s intellectual abilities are limited, one who thinks that he can overcome his intellectual shortcomings is mistaken because it is “a gift from God” (Abarbanel, Num. 6:23 quoting Koheles). We each have intrinsic limitations. Some people find this depressing as this removes one’s motivations to advance intellectually. [Rather,] one’s goal should be self-improvement. But this awareness of intrinsic limitation dampens a certain fire and zeal. Our society breeds this fantasy that anyone can do anything. And it’s not just society, but religious Jews echo this opinion. It is an attractive idea which the Jews attempt to support from midrashim. This leads to unhappiness as one finds that reality rebuts this fantasy.
One’s goal should be the appreciation of wisdom. This is realistic and one’s limitations do not affect this goal to a great degree. If a person trains his mind through Torah, although he may not be able to innovate the ideas of Rav Chaim, but amazingly, he can understand them. One should be comfortable and satisfied with the idea that he has this ability to understand God’s wisdom. It should not disturb a person that he cannot break open a sugya (master a talmudic portion) himself with the genius and enlightened thought of Rav Chaim. It is only because one is rooted in the world of the comparative that he seeks ego gratification by comparing himself to others to view himself as superior, through which his Torah enjoyment is diminished. But if he viewed his situation objectively, although he can’t become a Rav Chaim or the Rav, he should be satisfied to understand the ideas of these great minds. It is an amazing phenomenon that an average mind who trains himself properly can understand a good amount of God’s wisdom. One’s goal should be to partake in understanding God’s wisdom, ideas. Every person can do this. This depends on training one’s mind in methodology and understanding. If one does this, he can appreciate the wisdom of the gedolim. The fact that we can appreciate a Tosfos or a Ramban should be our concern, and not whether we innovated it. We should be very happy to understand them. This attitude should give one life and happiness. One need not originate the idea; [even without doing so] he is partaking of the wisdom. This should be the motivation of someone in the yeshiva. The Rav said that at times, people were upset with the yeshiva because it did not provide them enough [training] in learning. The Rav replied, “Success in learning depends upon one’s abilities and his desire, and desire is more important.” It is true: if one has the desire, he will be able to perfect his mind and appreciate wisdom.
The truth is that the small differences you find among friends—one is sharper than the other—does not impact one’s appreciation of wisdom. No mind, however sharp, does not miss certain points. Maybe one friend contributes more to a discussion, but in terms of contributing to the ideas of Torah through learning with a chavrusa [study partner], everyone partakes of this. A person should not look at the relative [Am I smarter?] but at the absolute: the ability to appreciate God’s wisdom. This must be one’s prime motivation, as herein lies perfection and one’s intellectual gifts do not impact this pursuit. This should be the realistic goal of someone in yeshiva. It is an opportunity in life, and one must view life on the whole and not miss out in life by not partaking of God’s wisdom. One should not be motivated by false motivation but by true motivation. That enjoyment and that appreciation of God’s wisdom is the very essence of life, the essence of a person’s enjoyment in this world.
When interpreting the words of Chazal, one must be very careful. Many times, their statements give certain implications. The question is if the implication is our own projection, or one which stems from Chazal’s words. One statement is “When will I reach the actions of my forefathers?” This can be taken to mean that one is always unhappy because he is never as great as the patriarchs. This person is doomed to eternal unhappiness because he will never attain that level. But the proper interpretation is the contrary: one should have before him the models of perfection, even though he can never reach their levels. That should not disturb a person. One should be able to study the perfection of previous generations and appreciate them, and always strive to partake of their models. But not because one is in competition with the patriarchs. The competitive factor one projects onto the scene destroys one’s ability to properly partake and it destroys the perspective. Aspiring to the perfections of the patriarchs is not a competitive idea which is self-congratulatory. Such a phenomenon is a value only in this society, and not in Torah. It destroys a person. The correct attitude is happiness in having the models of perfection before oneself to improve oneself. Ultimately, what removes one’s happiness is the world of the relative and the world of the competitive. If a person can live in his own reality, he could be infinitely happy. But most people cannot. One’s striving should be in self-evaluation regarding how much he is partaking in reality, versus the emotions that are destroying him.
When a person sins, it stems from his distortion of reality. But all one needs is a small bit of reality to convince him that the sin is real. And when a society supports certain ideas, one cannot cease from partaking in sinful activities. Society endorses sin as real [as value]. That is why only with wisdom can one expose society’s values as distorted and corrupt and remove the influence that society projects which gives a sense of reality to their poor values. Only through the wisdom that Moshe taught the Jews in Egypt were the Jews able to see through Egypt’s culture and values and realize that Egypt was corrupt. The Jews could no longer look up to Egypt, for how much respect can one have for foolish people? Only wisdom can break down the value one has for a society. Society’s influence is a powerful force. But down deep, a person recognizes that the only thing that is real is wisdom. And no matter how prominent a person is, once you realize that he is a fool, you cannot have any respect for him. I once knew a person who had great respect for a prominent and wealthy man. The person then met this prominent man and saw that his lifestyle was very foolish, which caused him to lose all respect for him. Human nature will never respect stupidity and ignorance. There is a part of man that respects wisdom above all else. Therefore, one has a tool—wisdom—[that he may engage to conquer all other influences]. Wisdom underlies everything in Judaism. Thus, no matter the strength of the emotion, the respect for wisdom overrides other influences.
Aristotle said that no one argues that an infant has the most pleasurable existence: it eats, it sleeps, etc. But no one would want to revert to that stage where there is no knowledge yet. Although man is pleasure driven, man will never give up his knowledge and his wisdom. He recognizes these as the most valuable components, even if he could have the infant’s greater enjoyment. That that is the force that Torah works with.