Menachem Lipkin referred me to this wonderful blog. And with over thirty years of experience in teaching Torah to ba’alei tshuvah, I would like to make some comments on this most important thread.
The Rambam teaches (Hilchot Talmud Torah, Ch. 5, Halacha 4): And any student who has not reached the level to instruct, and instructs, is an evildoer, a fool and an arrogant person. About him it is written “She has felled many victims” (Mishlei 7:26). Similarly, a scholar who has reached the level to instruct and does not instruct, is withholding Torah, placing stumbling blocks before the blind, and about him it is written (ibid) “Those killed are numerous.” Those small (unqualified) students who have not increased their Torah knowledge appropriately, and who seek to elevate themselves in front of those who are ignorant and their neighbors, and they jump to sit at the head to judge and to instruct among Jews – they are those who increase conflict and disputes, they destroy the world, they extinguish the light of Torah, and the terrorize damage the vineyard of the Hashem, Lord of Legions. About them King Solomon, in his wisdom, wrote: “The foxes have seized us, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards” (Shir Hashirim 2:15).
It is not coincidental in the Rambam that those who are not qualified choose to teach those who themselves are ignorant – knowledgeable Jews would never accept them as teachers of Torah. From this Rambam it is clear that there IS a downside to sending out unqualified people to spread Torah to other Jews.
While Outreach organizations are justifiably proud of their statistics on how many people that have become obersvant because of their efforts, what doesn’t show up are all the Jews that are “turned off” by what they hear, sensing it is not authentic, it doesn’t make sense, or the person presenting it isn’t interested in the individual as a person, but rather as another “notch in the kiruv belt.” These people don’t show up in the statistics because they usually don’t fill out the feedback forms at the end of a seminar or program — they just walk out, frequently muttering that they don’t want to have anything to do with this. The other statistic that doesn’t show up is the number of people who are “success stories” for a while, then a couple/few years in, drop it (hopefully before they are married with children).
There is a very important comment of the Vilna Gaon on the following verses in Mishlei (Ch. 19, V. 2-3). “Also, without knowledge, it is not good for the soul; and one who rushes his legs is a sinner. The foolishness of a man perverts his path, and his heart angers against G-d.”
The Vilna Gaon comments on the first part of verse 2 that just as a person who eats large quantities of enjoyable delicacies will still be undernourished and feel hungry if he doesn’t eat the staples, a person who does Mitzvoth but doesn’t study Torah finds that his soul will not be “good”, nourished. On the second half of the verse, the Gaon teaches that “legs” refer to a person’s character traits, his habits (from the word “hergel” which has the root “regel”). But these traits must be improved step-by-step, through steady, slow progress, the way one climbs a ladder. “Rushing the legs” refers to a person who jumps to a level that is not really appropriate for him, which causes him to miss the mark (“choteh”) and he will surely fall.
On the second verse, the Gaon explains: We are taught that a person who comes to be purified merits Divine assistance (TB Shabbat 104a). Sometimes a person begins to study Torah and perform Mitzvoth, and then abandons it because it is too difficult from him. He didn’t get the desired assistance from Above, and he is angry at G-d for not providing it. But the truth is that this was the result of his own foolishness. Every person is required to go in a way which is aligned with his own level, and not jump. This will enable the person to move in a stable way, and assistance from Above will facilitate that movement. But the described person didn’t begin down his OWN path, therefore he didn’t receive assistance. Because the path he pursued was chosen foolishly, without proper thought and contemplation, his path was distorted, he failed and he then gets angry at G-d.
I think the Vilna Gaon’s commentary serve as a powerful lesson for all Jews, but for Ba’alei Tshuvah in particular. It is almost as if he was directing his comments to Ba’alei Tshuvah, when he describes the person who “begins to study Torah and perform Mitzvoth.” Mitzvah observance that isn’t accompanied with Torah study as a foundation will lead to a sense of “hunger.” And one’s path must be appropriate for him or her, chosen with careful thought, then pursued slowly and steadily.
My experience is that when these principles are followed, a stable and healthy tshuva process is the result. When they are violated…