A teaching of Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, from Meor Einayim, Parshat Beshalach.
ויאמר אם שמוע תשמע אל קול י-ה-ו-ה אלהיך If listening you will listen to the voice of G!d… Ex. 15:26 (1)
The sages of the Talmud say this means that if you listen to the old, you will listen to the new. (2)
When one listens to words of Torah it makes an impression on his mind…and even if [the words] are lost the impression remains, and through this he can learn something new. Indeed, it is through the loss of the first words that the next can be received, as with a full vessel — if one wishes to fill it again, he must first empty it. The impression is the vessel that receives the new word and without which nothing could be received, because it is through the impression that the mind is clarified.
It is written of King Solomon that he “gave ear and tested many sayings,” and the sages say “At first, the Torah was like a basket without handles (lit. ears), until Solomon came and made handles (lit. ears) for it” (3). At Sinai, the sages tell us, the Jews heard all the Torah from the mouth of the Holy One of Blessing in one word — but such a thing the ear cannot hear, so it was impossible for the impression to be made in them, so they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will hear, but let not G!d speak to us, lest we die!” (4). Only Moses received all the Torah at Sinai, for he had the power to hear. He passed it on to Joshua (5), but it was already once removed, and Joshua passed it on to the Elders, and so on, and at every step it was further removed, until it had descended to such a low level in the days of Solomon that they could not receive its wisdom without some sort of “garb.” So Solomon “gave ear/made handles” to the Torah through his proverbs so that the people could understand.
1) The doubling of the root SH.M.A is, at least on the surface level, simply a Biblical stylistic device to emphasize the word, hence this is often translated “If you truly listen.” The sages, not satisfied with the surface level, read it hyperliterally to try to learn what it means to “truly listen.” 2) Here is the full discussion, of which the Meor Einayim only cites the end: Rabbi Zeira, and some say Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa, said, “Come and see how unlike the way of the Holy One of Blessing is the way of human beings. For an empty vessel can hold [more], but a full vessel cannot hold [more]. However, the Holy Blessed One is not like that. [In this case] a full vessel can hold but an empty vessel cannot hold. As it is stated, “If listening you will listen…” That is, if you listen at first, you will listen again. But if you do not listen at first, you will not listen later either. (Berachot 40a) 3) Ecclesiastes 12:9; Eruvin 21b; the Talmud is reading the word izen, “gave ear,” as “made handles,” since ear and handle are homonyms in the Hebrew. 4) Exodus 20:16 5) Pirkei Avot 1:1
Judaism is probably the most focused of any religion on learning. I think this is both a strength and a danger. At the time of the Baal Shem Tov learning had been taken to an extreme, so that the goal was to amass the most Torah knowledge, and the ideal Jew was someone who never stopped studying. This was one of the things against which the Besht and his followers rebelled, and here we see the Meor Einayim’s rebellion against scholasticism in a very nuanced teaching.
I see him here joining his Hasidic peers in giving a new meaning to that central value, Torah lishma, “Torah study for its own sake.” At a time when Torah study had become the ultimate mitzvah, even to the exclusion of other mitzvot, I think the Meor Einayim is proposing that Torah lishma means that the value is in the process, not the end, because it is the process that clarifies and opens the mind. Hence his focus on the “impression,” not the word. As one rebbe replied to someone who was bragging that he had gone through the whole Talmud twice: “Yes, but how much of the Talmud has gone through you?”
What is most striking to me, though, is the Meor Einayim’s reversal of the Talmudic metaphor of the full cup, saying one must “empty the cup” and forget prior learning in order to learn something new. This seems so un-Jewish! The same message, with the exact same metaphor, exists in a Zen Buddhist story — and that is precisely where I would expect to find it, not in a sefer, even a Hasidic one. So what are we to make of the Meor Einayim’s reversal? My sense is that he is overstating his case to shock his listeners out of the overwhelming mindset that acquiring knowledge is the goal. Rashi reads the Talmudic passage in this narrow way, understanding “the full cup” as a scholar and “listening to the old” as reviewing one’s studies. Perhaps the Meor Einayim felt he had to do more than try to reinterpret the sages, competing with Rashi; instead, he had to turn the whole thing on its head. Once we’re shaken up, we can go back and try to figure out just what he means by “losing the first words.”
My reading of it is, in addition to focusing on the process and not the result, that we must come to Torah each time with an open, even empty, mind. Why do children learn so much and so fast? Neurology aside, I think it’s because they approach everything fresh, without a lifetime of preconditioning to get in the way. When we learn Torah there is an urge (at least I feel it) to immediately try to connect everything we know about Torah to what we’re learning now. This is important, and is often how new Torah is created, but I think the Meor Einayim is cautioning us to wait a bit on that, and first learn like a kindergartener. After all, who is the only one who can hear all of the Torah from G!d’s mouth in one word? It’s Moses, who was as unlearned as the rest of them, but who came with the right kind of mind. Then, all he had to hear was the first word out of G!d’s mouth — Anochi, I. Once he knew who G!d is, he knew everything.
Then we come upon the second reversal: the Meor Einayim references the opening passage of Pirkei Avot, which relates the line of transmission of Torah from Moses to the sages. This is meant to certify the unchanged nature and authority of Torah as passed on by the sages, but the Meor Einayim, by linking it to the sages’ own reading of Proverbs, uses it to undermine that message. Instead, he says, this chain of transmission is also one of diminution, each generation passing on less and less of the original power of Torah, however extensively they may increase its volume in libraries of commentary.
There is hope, however. The Baal Shem Tov said that when the Messiah comes, he will explain all of the Torah from beginning to end, using all of the mystical recombinations of letters so that every word becomes many more words, multiplying the Torah many times over…and then he will make all of the Torah into one single word, and that word will be the name of G!d. And this time, everyone will be able to hear it. Our job, in the meantime, is to give ear to the Torah and thus clarify our minds, readying ourselves for that day G!d will be One and His Name One.