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How I Learned to Study Torah

adapted by Doug Lipman

In Eastern Europe, there was a couple whose ten-year-old son did not want to study the Torah. This was a terrible problem.

To be sure, learning the Torah takes long hours of concentrated study. Admittedly, what their little boy wanted to do was to be out running in the fields, roaming the woods and discovering the ways of animals.

But everyone knows that Torah is the key to happiness. Not only that, all the other little boys were studying Torah; so why shouldn't their son?

The unhappy parents went to the Rabbi. Obediantly, they took his advice; but the little boy still refused to study the Law. In fact, where he had once been merely bored, he now became defiant.

More desperate now, they asked their neighbors for help; and when the aid of neighbors failed, they even wrote to relatives in distant cities. They followed everyone's advice in turn: the best of it had no effect, and the worst made their son resist and distrust them more than ever. They began to despair.

Just then, word came that the greatest Hassidic rebbe of their generation, Aaron of Karlin, was going to visit their little stetl.

On the day that Aaron of Karlin was came to their village, a long line of people waited for his blessing: the childless, the crippled, those who had failed in business -- in short, nearly everyone in that stetl stood in line, with their life's greatest problem foremost in their minds. And there among them was our couple, and their ten-year-old boy.

When at last they were ushered into the great rebbe's presence, they told him the whole story. The rebbe, seated behind a desk, looked first at the little boy. He stood defiantly, his gaze down, his arms folded. The rebbe's eyes turned to the parents. They looked nervously from their son to the rebbe to each other. And then the rebbe spoke.

"So -- he won't study Torah, will he," he growled, so loudly that the parents unconsciously took a step toward each other. "You leave him here with me for two hours. I'll give him a talking to that he'll never forget!"

The parents looked at each other in fear. Should they leave their little boy with such a fierce man? But the advice of everyone else had already failed. He was their last chance.

As soon as the parents had left, the great rebbe went up to the little boy. Slowly, tenderly, he put his arms around the boy.

The boy was stiff at first, but then, by degrees, he allowed himself to be hugged. He dropped his arms to his side, relaxed the pout of his mouth, and was finally pulled against the breast of the great man. He stood there, hearing the rebbe's heart beat. Their breath flowed in and out together.

When the parents returned after two hours, they said, "Did it work?"

"Did it work?" He was nearly shouting. "You just wait and see!"

All the way home, the parents were looking at their little boy. Was there any change? Could there be any change?

They stopped at the butcher's. The butcher slapped a piece of meat on the counter.

"Mama, the butcher is angry, isn't he?"

"Oh, I guess he is."

"Mama, what happened to him - to make him feel that way?"

Over the days that followed, the parents realized: their little boy was somehow more in touch with people, attuned to their feelings, interested in their stories. When he heard others discussing the Torah that week, he suddenly realized: these were stories of people! He became fascinated with them. What made the people act that way?

Within a month, he asked to be allowed to learn to read the stories for himself. Within a year, his teachers saw him as their most talented student. In one way after another, the fire of Talmudic tradition began to glow brightly inside him.

One day, two neighbors were arguing over the purchase of a calf. The boy went up to them: "Wait! There's a way for both of you to get what you really want." To the amazement of the neighbors, the boy showed them both how to be satisfied with the transaction.

Before long, adult villagers were bringing their quarrels to the boy! He would point out to them the solutions that had been there in their hearts, but that they -- over the roar of their fear and anger -- could not hear.

When it was time for the boy to choose a profession, what else could he do? He became a rebbe himself.

Years later, when he was known as the greatest rebbe of his generation, his disciples would sit around him and ask: "You are such a great scholar. How did you get your deep insight into the Torah?"

And he would say to them, "When did I learn to study Torah? When did I truly learn to study the holy Torah? I learned everything when the great rebbe, Aaron of Karlin, held me silently against his breast."

I heard this story first from Reuven Gold, teller of Hassidic tales and social worker from Chicago. Another version is in Martin Buber's Tales of the Hassidim, Volume One, page 200, as "Conversion."

This story appeared in Chosen Tales, edited by Peninnah Schram, and on my audiotape, Milk from the Bull's Horn: Tales of Nurturing Men.



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