Since Pesah, many of us have spent our Shabbat afternoons reflecting upon Pirke Avot, The Ethics of Our Fathers. One of the key themes of Pirke Avot is the incomparable value of Torah knowledge and the importance pursuing it wholeheartedly. Although we all attach great significance to Torah wisdom, few people take the time to seriously consider practical strategies for acquiring it effectively. We have a tendency to simply "dive" into the texts of the Torah or Talmud without too much forethought.
In order to enjoy the most enriching Torah Study experience possible, we must turn to the masters of our tradition for guidance as to the proper method of learning. An examination of the words of our Sages reveals that they placed an unusually strong emphasis on the importance of hazara, review. Remarkably, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) asserts that "anyone who learns Torah but does not review is considered like one who sows seeds but does not harvest his crop."
Obviously, no farmer who has spent long hours tilling, sowing and fertilizing his field would pass up the opportunity to profit from his investment. Indeed, the reason for all of his toil is his desire to eventually benefit from the produce of his land. If a farmer neglects to reap what he has sown, all of his efforts are retroactively rendered meaningless. Intriguingly then, the metaphor that the Rabbis employ suggests that one who diligently engages in the study of Torah but fails to review his studies has literally labored in vain.
Certainly no one would question the practical, mnemonic value of review - without review, one is likely to forget at least some of what one has learned. When a student reviews material, he revisits information and ideas that he has explored in the past so as to improve his capacity to remember them in the future. This repetition does not contribute anything to what he knows; he is simply making use of a strategy that will help him hold onto the knowledge he has already acquired. Nevertheless, the Rabbis maintained that if a person does not review his Torah studies, his process of learning itself is somehow incomplete. In their view, hazara does not simply reinforce our memories - it adds a crucial element to our understanding of Torah.
By definition, though, review involves the rehashing of facts and concepts we have already learned. How can this possibly contribute something novel to our body of knowledge?
The answer to this difficulty lies in a clarification of the Torah’s concept of review. A person who wishes to expand his Torah knowledge must begin somewhere. He selects a specific set of laws or halachic topic to research and analyze, and progresses carefully from one aspect of this subject to the next. The only way to explore a Torah topic systematically is to consider its component parts in detail, one by one. By the time he has concluded his investigation, he may have accumulated a vast array of meaningful insights - each fascinating in its own right - that have offered him a glimpse of the inscrutable depth of the Torah’s wisdom.
However, the collection of novel points he has discovered, as beautiful as it might be, remains just that - a collection, loosely knit and lacking unity. Unless the student opts to revisit these insights and synthesize them into a meaningful whole, he will not have reaped the ultimate benefit of his Torah study - the chance to perceive the magnificent conceptual structure that underlies all of the smaller hidushim he has toiled to develop and perfect. It is this search for the "big picture", this process of reevaluating and integrating the results of one’s Torah learning in order to reveal abstract principles of ever more stunning elegance, that constitutes genuine review.
With this in mind, we can better understand the value that our Rabbis attached to the review of Torah learning. What Hazal advocated was not the mechanical repetition of memorized facts or ideas but a fundamental transformation of the way we understand and conceptualize the knowledge we have acquired.
After we have thoroughly acquainted ourselves with a topic of Torah study and have subjected its details to careful analysis, we are presented with the chance to take our comprehension of the wisdom of Torah to an even more profound level. It is now the time for us to review the insights we have gained with the hope of identifying a broader, more penetrating theoretical formulation that will further integrate and illuminate them. We mull over our previous discoveries not as an aid to memory, but as a stimulus to qualitatively deeper intellectual breakthroughs.
Now it is clear why a person who learns but does not review is compared to a farmer who works tirelessly to plant but never harvests his crop. Through his toil, the student has placed himself in a position where he can avail himself of the most precious of opportunities - the opportunity to unlock a whole new realm of Torah wisdom and knowledge of God.
If he fails to review his learning and thereby move beyond his current level of understanding, his comprehension of Torah will never reach its zenith. In effect, he will have abandoned the most delectable fruits of his labor, leaving new vistas of Torah knowledge unexplored.
On the other hand, one who performs hazara in this unique manner experiences the breathtaking beauty of the Creator’s wisdom with an added dimension of clarity. From this new vantage point, the student gains a deeper awareness of the infinity of God’s knowledge as it is revealed in His Torah. Having perceived the untold richness, complexity and sophistication of the Torah’s wisdom in such an exquisite way, he is sure to echo the words of King David, "for every pursuit I have seen an end, but Your commandment is exceedingly vast."