We are being comforted.
After Tisha B’Av, Chazal established seven weeks of comforting haftaros, sheva d’nichmeta.
Rav Dovid Feinstein explains that the main theme of comfort in this week’s haftarah is for us to focus on the great salvation that will come in the future. As the first verse says (Yeshaya 54:11), “I will place down gems as your stone flooring and lay down your foundation with sapphires.”
The Navi continues by relating that one day we will all be students of Hashem, a prophecy we repeat on Shabbos after Mussaf: “Vechol banayich limudei Hashem, verav shalom banayich – All your children will be students of Hashem, and your children’s peace will be great.”
What does it mean to be a student of Hashem? It means, at least in part, to study Torah for Him.
The famous Rav Shmelka of Nikolsburg was once learning in the beis medrash alongside his equally famous brother Rav Pinchas Horowitz, author of the seforim HaMakneh and Hafla’ah. Rav Pinchas noticed that every so often, the shammas of Rav Shmelke would interrupt Rav Shmelke and whisper something into his ear. After observing this a number of times, Rav Pinchas couldn’t contain his curiosity and his anger at the shammas interrupting his brother’s learning.
“Why do you permit him to continuously interrupt your learning?! Tell him of the prohibition of bitul Torah – that he shouldn’t waste any of your time, especially when you are learning in the beis medrash,” Rav Pinchas said to his brother.
Rav Shmelke responded, “My brother, you misunderstand. I told my shammas to interrupt me. You see, when I learn Torah, there are times that I get so involved in what I’m learning and I enjoy it so much that I forget there’s a Ribbono Shel Olam! I told my shammas that every so often, he should whisper in my ear, ‘There is a Ribbono Shel Olam!’ This is what brings me back to the purpose of my learning Torah – to understand Hashem and His will better and to attach myself to Him!”
The Kotzker Rebbe once said, “The Torah prohibits us from worshipping idols, avodah zarah – even of the Torah itself!” This means that we can’t allow our Torah learning to take on a life of its own. We must always learn with a real and continuous awareness of why and for Whom we are learning.
This does not mean that we must meditate upon Hashem while actually learning. Certainly, we must concentrate and attempt to understand what Rashi and Tosafos and the Rashba are saying. But, as Rav Shlomo Brevda once told me, in order to maximize the hashpaah, the powerful spiritual influence that Torah study can have upon our souls and our middos, we must fulfill the requirements of Rav Chaim Volozhin, who writes in the Nefesh HaChaim (Shaar 4:6):
“This is the proper true path that Hashem has chosen. Whenever a person prepares himself to learn Torah, he should sit down before he learns, at least for a short time, with a pure heartfelt fear of Hashem, and confess his sins from the depths of his heart, so that his Torah will be more pure and holy. He should then have in mind that he will attach himself to Hashem through learning His Torah, because by studying the word of Hashem, halacha, with all one’s strength, with this, one attaches himself to Hashem as much as possible. This is because He and His will (the Torah) are One.
“Before learning Torah, a person should think about Hashem with purity of heart and fear of Him, and cleanse himself with thoughts of repentance, so that He can connect and attach himself to the will of G-d when he learns. He should also accept upon himself to observe and fulfill all that is written in the entire Torah and he should pray that Hashem will lead him to discover the truth of Torah.
“This should be done even in the middle of learning. Permission is given to interrupt regular learning subjects, for a short time, before the passion of the fear of Hashem becomes extinguished from his heart, [to reignite] all that he accepted upon himself before he began learning. He should think again of the fear of Hashem… This is not bitul Torah, because it is necessary in order for the Torah to have a lasting impact.”
This approach to Torah study is vital in order to avoid the warning of the Kotzker Rebbe mentioned above. By actively and directly connecting our Talmud Torah to the Ribbono Shel Olam in a real sense, and not merely in a general, disconnected way, the learning becomes a vehicle for true dveikus with Hashem.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes similarly in Alei Shur (Volume 2, page 106). He notes that there are many ways to learn Torah: iyun, bekius, pilpul, in-depth analysis, general factual knowledge, to name a few. There is also a yiras Shamayim way of learning. This path does not diverge from any of the others but rather accompanies them. Every sugya and subject in Shas has the fear of Hashem within it, if we pay attention to it. All of the decrees from the rabannan are derived from a fear of Hashem and a desire not to transgress His Torah.
A person can inject fear of Hashem into all that he learns, says Rav Wolbe. Frequently, the Gemara says “Amar Mar – the (anonymous) Master said.” The Midrash Tanchuma says that Mar refers to Hashem! Thus, instead of saying Mar when learning the Gemara, one should substitute the words Amar HaKadosh Baruch Hu and then state the halacha the Gemara mentions. This is the path and method that Rav Yisrael Salanter utilized to directly connect what he was learning to Hashem and His ratzon. This is how we can discover yirah and mussar in whatever we learn.
The sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh states that following the Nefesh HaChaim’s guide to Torah learning is a major component to the mitzvah of “Shivisi Hashem L’negdi samid, I set Hashem before me always” (Tehillim 16:8). Although the Rema begins the Shulchan Aruch by saying that the avodah of Shivisi is among the maalos of tzadikim, the highest levels of the righteous, the Biur HaGra there says, “This concept includes all the levels of the righteous – vezehu kol maalos hatzadikim!”
Thus, we must work on trying to feel Hashem’s presence at all times – even when we are learning Torah. This is how we can become true students of Hashem.