A rosh yeshiva I learned by in Israel once made a very compelling comment. He said to the shiur that if you can’t say it then you don’t understand it. Lehavdil, Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” My late relative, Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, zt”l, always told me to write down the hava amina and maskana of the Gemara to become fluent in Shas and know the final halachot.
All of these statements point toward one idea: it’s important to understand. I would posit that there are two key areas that a person must become fluent in: himself and in understanding information.
Knowing who you are and your essence is a key opening point to know your place in the world. The Jews have an upper hand in terms of self-identity, as the name they were given speaks volumes about their essence.
There’s no greater parsha to demonstrate this motif than in Parshat “Shemot.” The Baal Haturim says on the words of “Shemot Bnei Yisrael habaim” that it’s roshei teivot for the word shivya—being captured. He goes on to say that when the Jewish people were captured or, said another way, in bondage, the Jews kept their “shemot,” Hebrew names, one of the reasons they merited redemption. The Seforno understands the “shemot” as an emphasis that it was only “these,” the ones who came down, who were worthy to be known by name, as they were examples for the Jews at that point, but after “these” righteous people died, substantial personage was gone.
Knowing you’re an individual with your own self-identity should bring enormous self-happiness as you can effectuate great change. My first cousin Rabbi Yakov Nagen (Genack) echoes this by pointing out that based on the Zohar, every letter in the Torah corresponds to the 600,000 souls in Israel. And he further says that each person can change their letter in the Torah. Our actions can make the letter have a new distinctiveness. Also, he quotes the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) that from one man God created a new and diverse civilization where each person is unique and different from the other. Only God can create diversity from a single being. But the exuberance of being like no other can’t be matched. It celebrates individuality and bolsters the notion that you must get in touch with your inner self at the deepest level.
We further see the implication of self-identity in an explanation that my great-great-great grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu Moshe Levine, zt”l, who wrote the sefer Yad Eliyahu on Shas and Aggadata, makes when discussing the story of when Eliyahu Hanavi first sees Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). Eliyahu sees Elisha plowing but Elisha is in the back of the line. Also, we see that Eliyahu throws to Elisha his “aderet,” only to have Eliyahu then proclaim that Elisha is not ready and Eliyahu tells him to go home, and upon Elisha’s return Eliyahu sees he’s ready.
Rav Levine brings down commentators who explain that the “aderet” was at the cave where Eliyahu encountered God, and therefore it had a high level of kedusha as it had the light of the Shechinah upon it, so Eliyahu threw this coat to Elisha, and Elisha wore it and it was a spiritual match, further propelling Elisha to want to follow after Eliyahu.
To explain the episode with the plows, it may be said that Elisha had the opposite temperament of Eliyahu, in that he was a calmer individual. Therefore, Elisha was 12th in line—meaning 11 plowers were ahead of him, for his nature wasn’t as inclined to rush and be the first, but even someone with that nature has the capacity for passionate service, compelling Eliyahu to throw him the “aderet.”
After Elisha put on the aderet he felt a feeling of zerizut, but Eliyahu wanted Elisha to prepare on his own for his upcoming duties, for we know—based on a commentator who said—the influencer will influence based on his power but the one who is receiving the influence will only receive in proportion to how much he prepared. Therefore, Eliyahu told Elisha to go prepare, implying that Eliyahu’s action of throwing the “aderet” was of no use if Elisha didn’t take his own action, prompting Eliyahu to say, “So what”—you must prepare on your own. Understanding the message, Elisha took the cattle and slaughtered it in order to prepare. That’s what the verse means when it says “Vayakam,” a term indicating preparedness, readiness and an urge to depart. Only then did Eliyahu fully accept Elisha and crown him as the next prophet.
The message of the Eliyahu Hanavi and Elisha saga was to know who you are. Eliyahu had to bring Elisha to a place where he knew who he was. When Elisha knew who he was, he experienced profound happiness and was ready to release all of his potential within. Once that was accomplished, Elisha could replace Eliyahu.
In terms of understating information, I always quote my uncle, Rabbi Genack, who brings down the following story in one of his sefarim to differentiate between Torah Shebichtav and Torah Shebaal Peh. The Griz was walking with Rav Elchanan Wasserman and they were discussing Torah. As they were speaking in Torah, Rav Elchanan mentioned that perhaps they should look inside to get reward for otiot machkimot (the letters bring wisdom). He responded that such a notion only applies to Torah Shebichtav and not Torah Shebaal Peh. In regard to Torah Shebaal Peh, it’s the understanding of the sugya that brings fulfillment of talmud Torah, not the reading of the letters. Surely, it’s not an easy task to understand every sugya, but the highest form of knowledge is the Oral Law, and our responsibility is to try to understand it. This is a model for information in life as well, as we should try to understand what something means, for understanding brings happiness and happiness drives one to succeed further.
I once heard an axiom that said, look at the reason and you will know why. We must seek out reasons and try to understand the data in front of us. We must know ourselves and try to comprehend that which we interact with. By doing this, the greatest sense of happiness can be reached as our heart and mind can meet the truth.
Steven Genack is the author of “Articles, Anecdotes & Insights,” Genack/Genechovsky Torah from Gefen Press.