January 5, 2023
I have an ever-growing collection of Torah sources from my general learning that also offer fascinating insights for our times. I haven't found a place for them in previous articles, but it's a shame not to share them. Here is the first of a series of shorter pieces based on these sources.
Contrary to the modern mistranslation and misunderstanding of learning Torah lishma to mean “learning for the sake of learning” – a nonsensical and aimless notion that has unfortunately become the underpinning of much of the Orthodox world – I learn Torah for the sake of becoming smarter, more knowledgeable, a better person, and better equipped to fulfill Hashem's will.
This is in fact what we pray for every morning in the blessing before Shema: for the ability to learn, to teach others, to guard the Torah, and to fulfill it. Learning Torah is not an academic exercise or a religion unto itself; it is fundamentally goal-oriented.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning Torah, at least for me, is discovering profound insights into the world, the human condition, and how to approach contemporary issues. These insights are often found in seemingly random, unlikely places, in parenthetical comments, or just beneath the surface of apparently dry laws. As the Mishna in Avos 5:22 teaches, “Stir it [the Torah], then stir it some more, because everything is in it.” We just have to pay attention and let the Torah speak to us, without imposing our will on it.
In this and future articles I will present a selection of profound insights hidden just beneath the surface that are especially relevant for our times.
The Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 225:2 states:
מי שלא ראה את חבירו מעולם ושלח לו כתבים אע"פ שהוא נהנה בראייתו אינו מברך על ראייתו
One who never saw a certain friend of his, and he sent him letters, even though he has enjoyment when he sees him, he does not make a blessing for seeing him.
This comes from the laws of the shehecheyanu blessing, which we say at various happy occasions as an expression of gratitude. The previous halacha states that if one sees a close friend after thirty days of absence, and this gives him exceptional joy, he may say this blessing. However, as we see here, this does not apply to a pen pal that one never met, even if they corresponded over a long period of time and meeting him in the flesh for the first time gives him great joy.
The source for this halacha is a ruling from the Rashba, who lived over 700 years ago, which is cited in the Beis Yosef.
This teaches us a profound lesson for our times. The advent of the Internet and social media has cheapened the idea of a friend to a status symbol in a virtual reality, an empty caricature of a real relationship. Many people, especially young people, believe their closest friends are people they never met in real life, and probably never will – and they see no loss in that.
We learn from this halacha that the joy of meeting a long-distance friend for the first time, even after a long period of correspondence, cannot compare to the joy of meeting a friend one has already met in the flesh after a period of absence.
It should be self-understood that video chats over Zoom and other such platforms are no substitute for time spent together in person. Similarly, “dates” over video calls are no substitute for spending time together in person, nor can a relationship be developed this way. The “enlightened” world's continued push toward virtual reality and virtual relationships as a replacement for the real thing should make us recoil.
If long-distance correspondence is the best we can do at times, so be it, and we should be grateful for it, but let us not lose sight of the irreplaceable value of connecting with people in real life. It is only these connections that warrant a bracha.
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