A mistaken opinion says that true Torah study for the sake of the Divine is only possible when there is no personal joy in the act.
Rabbi Avraham Borenstein of Sochaczew (1839-1910) was one of the most influential Polish hassidic masters. His acclaim and impact were primarily due to his legal acumen. His legacy includes a halachic work on the laws of Shabbat entitled Eglei Tal (Piotrkow, 1905), a work still widely consulted, and volumes of responsa printed posthumously in 1912-1934 under the title Avnei Nezer. It is by the title of his responsa that he is commonly known.
In the introduction to his Eglei Tal, the Avnei Nezer incidentally mentions that he heard about a certain mistaken attitude toward Torah study. The mistaken approach held that if one studied Torah and enjoyed the pursuit, his Torah study was tainted; true Torah study for the sake of the Divine was only possible when there was no personal joy in the act.
The Avnei Nezer does not reveal who suggested this notion, but it may well have been his contemporary, Rabbi Yerahmiel Yisrael Yitzhak Danziger of Aleksandrow Lodzki (1853-1910), head of the Alexander Hassidim. In a compilation of the Alexander Rebbe’s talks, he quotes his father and predecessor, Rabbi Yehiel Danziger (d. 1894), who proposed this very idea, and the son apparently agreed with the father.
According to the Alexander rebbes, only someone who endures hardship to study Torah, toiling and sweating, perhaps barely understanding – only such a person should be lauded as having really studied Torah. Enjoyment when studying Torah could be considered a foreign body that contaminates the purity of the pursuit.
The Alexander Rebbe’s work Yismah Yisrael was published posthumously in Lodz in 1911-1912, but the material was presented publicly over the years, and it is entirely possible that the Avnei Nezer had heard about the position expounded by successive Alexander rebbes.
The Avnei Nezer was not impressed with the Alexander idea, declaring that this position was a “famous mistake” and claiming that the contrary was actually true: Torah study is most valuable when it is a joyful endeavor.
Only when a person takes pleasure in studying do the words of Torah become part of his lifeblood, coursing through his veins and providing him with spiritual nourishment.
To buttress his contention, the Avnei Nezer cited the Zohar, which says that both the Evil Inclination and the Good Inclination grow through happiness.
The Evil Inclination is nourished by unworthy actions; the Good Inclination grows due to the enjoyment of Torah. Thus delighting in Torah study is a positive emotion, for it serves as a growth hormone for the Good Inclination.
The Avnei Nezer did, however, acknowledge a caveat: One who studies only for personal enjoyment – such as monetary gain or intellectual stimulation – and not because Torah is our Divine heritage is indeed learning for the wrong reason. Nevertheless, we are encouraged to fulfill God’s commandments even if we do not do so for the right reasons, in the hope that we will one day fulfill those commandments for the sake of Heaven (B. Pesahim 50b).
In sum, the Avnei Nezer concluded: One who studies both for the sake of Heaven and for any benefit that accrues from Torah study – such learning is for the sake of Heaven, and the person is entirely holy, for even the enjoyment can be considered the fulfillment of a commandment.
Who is correct? Should we ideally take pleasure in Torah study, or is our Torah study purer when it lacks any measure of enjoyment? Perhaps this is a question that need not be answered, and the two contradictory approaches should both be preserved and recalled at appropriate times.
On those days when we relish the encounter with Torah; when we can think of no better pursuit; when we enjoy poring over hallowed tomes and find it difficult to pull ourselves away; when every word seems to speak to our soul – on such days, the Avnei Nezer reminds us that real Torah study is supposed to be enjoyable, and at that time we are “entirely holy,” for the Torah is our lifeblood.
On those days when we regrettably find no joy in Torah; when we grapple with passages from old texts that seemingly have no relevance and no import for our daily lives; when we would prefer to be anywhere else but in front of a book of Torah – on such days the Alexander rebbes remind us that if we overcome the discomfort and study Torah, that Torah is truly pure and lofty.