As he grew into old age, Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk found it more and more difficult to see. He visited an eye doctor in Warsaw, who advised him to wear glasses whenever he studied Torah. In this way, the doctor assured him, he would save what little eyesight he had left.
The Kotsker refused, saying, “Nothing shall come between my eyes and the Torah!”
Reb Eliyahu of Viskit, a disciple of the Kotsker rebbe, had a similar problem with his eyes and visited the same doctor in Warsaw. He was given the same advice. Citing the precedent of his rebbe, Reb Eliyahu, too, refused to wear glasses when he studied Torah. But out of deference to the learned doctor, he chose to wear them at all other times.
Why did Menachem Mendel find reading Torah with glasses problematic? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wear the glasses so that he might see the Word more clearly? His reasoning was this: God created me with weak eyes for a reason. What could this reason be? When I read Torah, my eyesight being what it is, I sometimes misread a word or even an entire sentence. Not knowing I have done this, I then go on to interpret my reading to reveal its deepest truths. Sometimes these revelations are deep insights into the nature of life and how best to live it. They are of enormous benefit to both me and my Hasidim. Now, I would not have seen these truths if, every time I read Torah, I did so in exactly the same way –— something that would inevitably happen if I wore glasses. So God gave me weak eyes that I might see things missed by stronger eyes.
Understanding his teacher’s reasoning, Reb Eliyahu also read Torah as God intended him to: without glasses and with weak eyes. But outside of study, he wore his glasses so that he might see the world more clearly and meet it more honestly.
How do you read Torah, God’s revelation? Do you prefer to see things as others do, sharing the conventional 20/20 worldview of corrected vision? Or are you willing to make mistakes and discover new truths? And if you are willing to do this with the Word, are you willing to do it with the world?
Torah (from the Hebrew root yaroh, “to teach”): Best understood as “teaching” or “instruction.” The notion that Torah is primarily a legal code is false and misleading. It is a book of teaching about life and how best to live it, and it contains law but is not limited to law. Technically, Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses, but it is commonly used to refer to the entire body of Jewish teaching.