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Friday, January 28, 2022
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With lofty ambition and high-minded intentions, I erect small libraries of books upon my night table, eagerly anticipating the vacation I’ve planned for months. Finally, finally! There will be time to work through the collection of edifying, “nutritious” books that I’ve assembled over the course of the year based on glowing book reviews and recommendations from friends.

But inevitably, I find myself sitting on a lounge chair, struggling through chapter 2 of Thinking Fast and Slow (which, as Jordan Ellenberg quipped, is more slow than fast), wondering what the fuss is all about. It’s a dreadful conundrum: continuing with the book is a painful proposition, but putting it away is an admission of defeat. And so, unwilling to give up without a fight, I chip away at chapters 3 and 4 and slowly wade into the endless abyss of chapter 5, finally slipping into a well-deserved nap. But that’s as far as I get; back from vacation–and still in the middle of chapter 5–I guiltily return the book to my night table, where it will slowly be buried by next year’s collection of unread books.

I’m not the first person, I suspect, to force myself to continue a book that I’ve started, believing, somehow, that it is “good for me”–like green peppers and raw carrots. But Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century author, would disapprove: “Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good” (Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life of Johnson).

Johnson’s insight is a powerful one, and one that explains our distressing inability to remember almost anything we learned in school. Our minds are wired to absorb that which we enjoy–a word most of us would not use to describe the majority of subjects we had no choice but to take. And so reading books as a task, as if we were still in school–no matter how intrinsically valuable the book may be–is detrimental to true education. In the words of Thomas Carlyle, “What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us.”

What is true of reading literature is true of Torah study as well–only with far more significant consequences. In his Orot HaTorah, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook laments an all too common scenario: the yeshiva student who, force-fed but ill-suited for the standard curriculum of Talmud and commentaries, comes to the tragically mistaken conclusion that Torah is not for him. “If only he would find his particular purpose, to immerse himself in the aspect of Torah that is appropriate for his soul… he would remain faithful to the holiness of the Torah, and accomplish great things in the aspect of Torah which is relevant to him.” Not every student is drawn to the study of Talmud and Jewish law–and that’s okay! Each student must be encouraged to discover the part of Torah that speaks to his soul, for that is the Torah he will absorb (Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot HaTorah, 9:6).

As adults, we are no longer the passive recipients of our Jewish education. Each of us has the opportunity to develop our own personal “university”–a course of Torah study that matches our unique personal inclinations and interests. To absorb the Torah and make it part of who we are, we have to leave some books on the night table–guilt free.

Rabbi Elie Mischel is the rabbi of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, NJ. His weekly blog post is available at www.suburbantorah.org

By Rabbi Elie Mischel

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