(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...simchah, joy...
(Genesis 26:24) ...y'hi l'kha asher lakh... (Esau declines Jacob's generous gifts, saying) ...let what is yours be yours...
The great dilemma of every Jewish educator is the choice between breadth and depth. Given the limited amount of time available to teach – whether in supplemental or day school for children or adult learning environments for adults – should the time be spent covering as much ground as possible, or should the time be spent exploring a limited topic as deeply as possible?
Mostly, the decision is to pursue a breadth of knowledge, often a mile wide and an inch deep. We use an almost utilitarian argument: without knowing all the basics, a student cannot function fully in Jewish community. It is similar to learning to drive; knowing the function of the carburetor may be helpful in fixing a reluctant engine, but you can't operate the vehicle without knowing how to use the brakes and the steering!
But it looks like that decision may not always be as wise or even practical as we sometimes assume. When it comes to acquiring Torah, it may just be that plumbing the depths may be the better choice.
Everyone loves a happy occasion. Our tradition formalizes the obligation to rejoice when such a moment occurs, a requirement that does not limit the spontaneous joy in people's hearts. Birth, wedding, bar/bat mitzvah – these occasions are marked as much by the "party" as they are by the ritual itself. In fact, the festivities following such life cycle events bear the name se'udat mitzvah, a commanded feast. Instinctively, people understand the importance of deepening the joy of the moment and not rushing off to the next order of business. Even uneducated and non-observant Jews (even non-Jews!) know to eat, drink and be merry when a child is introduced to the covenant and community, or when a couple makes a sacred pact, or when a child enters the adult community. And even if they do not know the words to siman tov u'mazal tov or hava nagilah they respond with their hands and feet to the circle of celebration that forms around the principles involved.
Each such occasion is known as a simchah (the plural of which is semachot). It is a word that means "joy" or "happiness," one of many such words in Hebrew (and English, as well). It is one way to acquire Torah – through the joy and appreciation of what is at hand. That is to say, by immersing in the moment and reveling in what is ours, we stand to gain more than by rushing off to the next such experience. It is a decision for quality over quantity, for depth over breadth.
Among the synonyms for "happy" in Hebrew is the word osher. One of Jacob's children bears this name. And we are most familiar with it from the two introductory lines to Psalm 145, each of which begins with the plural form ashrei (one from Psalm 84 and the other from Psalm 144). It is also used as a direct synonym for samei'ach (the adjective form of simchah) in the teaching of Ben Zoma in Chapter 4 of the tractate Avot: Who is wealthy? One who is happy (samei'ach) with his portion, as it is written (in Psalm 128), "When you eat the labor of your hands, happy you will be (ashrekha), and all will be well with you."
Ben Zoma's teachings make similar representations about wisdom, strength and honor. Accept what is at hand, he says, and make the most of it. Acquire what you already have and you will find the deepest satisfaction.
The word osher, spelled the same but with a slight difference in pronunciation, has another meaning. Pronounced asher, it literally means "that" or "which" or "who." (You know it best from the formulation of the blessing asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav, "who has sanctified us with the commandments.") It is one of the most common words in Hebrew.
When Jacob meets his estranged brother Esau, he worries that the animosity between them will erupt into fatal violence. Seeking to mollify his brother after more than twenty years of (presumed) anger, Jacob sends a large quantity of expensive gifts as a peace offering.
But when the brothers meet face to face, they are both overwhelmed by the reunion. They cry together as they reconnect, and Esau takes genuine delight in meeting Jacob and his large family. With the tension released, Esau asks Jacob why he sent such a large gift to him. "To gain your favor," Jacob replies.
Esau initially declines. Y'hi l'kha asher lakh, "Let what is yours be yours," he says. With a slight change in pronunciation, Esau could just as well be saying, "Let what is yours be your happiness." In other words, as Ben Zoma taught, be satisfied with your own portion.
Jacob presses the gift on his brother, calling it not so much a gift as a blessing. Commentators see that change in terminology a recognition by Jacob that he obtained the blessings of the first-born that should have gone to Esau by improper means. It makes Esau's implied lesson to Jacob no less important to understand it as gentle chastisement as much as the statement of a man who has come to appreciate what is his in life. Esau cautions Jacob about quantity over quality, a lesson Jacob struggles with to his dying day.
We live in an abundant society, and most of us live immersed in that abundance. We have replaced inquisitiveness with acquisitiveness – not stopping to take joy and happiness in the moment, but instead charging ahead to collect as much wealth or as many experiences as we can get our hands on. As the range of opportunities expands in our world, that compulsion to collect becomes frantic. It translates into our expectations for education, Jewish and otherwise, as well – we hope to be minimally conversant in everything, but expert in nothing except the practical.
Breadth brings pleasure, but not happiness or joy. In order for something to bring deeper joy and satisfaction, we must feel its worth deeply and appreciate its depth as well. Perhaps you can acquire Torah by developing an admirable command of the simple words, able to dispassionately quote the right verse or parse any given phrase. But certainly, to know the joy of Torah, you must be able to explore its depth of meaning – even if it is only one story, one verse, one word, one letter. And once that joy has taken root in your soul, Torah is a permanent acquisition.
Here are two very different ways to illustrate the notion of joy in the depth of what you have.
Your insurance provider will delight in this first suggestion: take an inventory of your possessions. Count you chairs, your spoons, your books. Spend even just a moment remembering how they came into your hands – you will be amazed at the wealth of memory and experience that you will reclaim.
Your soul will delight in this second suggestion: take an inventory of your Jewish practices. Omit nothing – lighting candles, giving tzedakah, sending greetings for Rosh HaShanah, volunteering your time, driving car pool to Religious School, reading Jewish authors. Then choose one of those practices and find a way to deepen it in your own life.