By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Eastern Airlines Flight 885 took off from Miami International Airport at 8:56 a.m. on May 5, 1980. The plane was a three-engine Lockheed Tri-Star. The flight was to Nassau International Airport in the Bahamas. There were 162 passengers and 10 crewmembers on board. At 9:15, during an ascent through 15,000 feet, a warning light went on indicating problems with Tri-Star’s #2 engine. This engine then flamed out. A decision had to be made–should they continue on to Nassau, which was only 54 miles away, or return to Miami, which was 110 miles away? The captain elected to return to Miami to land. This was due to the poor weather conditions in Nassau. It would have taken more time to land in Nassau than to land in Miami. (In response to a lawsuit, this decision was proved correct in a flight simulator.)
En route back to Miami, warning lights for engines #1 and #3 illuminated. At 9:28, at an altitude of 16,000 feet, engine #3 flamed out. At 9:33, engine #1 flamed out. While the flight crew attempted to restart engine #2, cabin lights went off and flight-deck instruments stopped working. The aircraft descended without power from about 13,000 feet to about 4,000 feet, at which point the crew successfully restarted engine #2 and executed a landing at Miami. None of the 172 passengers and crew aboard was injured in the incident.
The odds of an engine failing in midflight in this particular plane were estimated at one in a thousand. The odds of two engines failing simultaneously are one in a million. The odds of all three engines failing simultaneously are one in a billion. Was this an extremely rare and bizarre accident?
The Gemara in Taanis (7a) quotes Rebbe Chama b’Rebbe Chanina: “‘Iron sharpens iron’ (Mishlei 27:17). Just as iron sharpens iron, two sages that study together sharpen one another.” This is similar to what Rebbe Yosi b’Rebbe Chanina taught: Sages who learn alone deserve a punishment by the sword. Moreover, they become foolish.”
A Gemara in Makkos (10a) similarly emphasizes the importance of not learning alone. In a d’rash of the pasuk in Koheles (5:9) “U’mi oheiv behamon lo tevuah” (“Whoever loves a multitude, lo tevuah”), Rav Ashi offered the following: “Whoever loves to learn in a group will merit to acquire Torah.” The Maharsha says that if you meet an individual who says he consistently learns Torah in a group, yet appears to be an ignoramus, you know that he is lying. The Torah guarantees that an individual can reach new planes of Torah understanding if he learns Torah in a group. His claim that he is part of a Torah study group must have been concocted out of thin air.
Even if we can understand why group learning is better, why does the Gemara practically state that it is a sin to learn alone? What is the basis for this? The Maharsha explains that Torah study is not like any other area of human knowledge. It has deep sevaros and secrets. These can be properly understood only by an animated give-and-take with others. One who studies alone is viewing the Torah as a simple textbook that one can read alone and successfully cram for any test. This is a disgrace of Torah and can make one liable for punishment.
This is only true if one willfully forgoes a Torah chaburah that is fitting for him and instead learns alone. One who is in a place or situation where he cannot join a chaburah is not disgracing the Torah by learning alone. Just the opposite; he is showing courage by overcoming the evil inclination against the study of Torah and learning by himself. It is often much more difficult to learn alone, and one who nevertheless does so deserves great reward. Rav Yaakov Emden proves that someone who cannot join a chaburah should nevertheless learn by himself from an explicit mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:2): “And from where do we know that someone who learns alone that Hashem gives him reward . . .” It is evident that if you receive reward for an action, then it must be proper.
The Gemara’s statement about one who learns alone becoming foolish can best be explained by the NTSB’s resolution of the mystery of the failing engines.
Was it simply a coincidence that three engines failed on the same flight? The NTSB concluded otherwise. The same two mechanics serviced all three engines. They failed to seal the oil tanks properly with “O-rings,” and all the engine oil leaked out. They made the same error three times. In fact, internal documents later showed that they made the same mistake numerous times before.
When one learns Torah by himself, he is prone to making mistakes. He can misunderstand one concept and then continually make the same error over and over again. With a chaburah, the mistake can be realized and corrected. The Gemara is saying that learning alone is plane foolish. Therefore, one should try his utmost to join a chaburah to be able to soar to new heights in Torah.
It is interesting to note that Rebbe Yakov Emden stated that the benefits of learning in Eretz Yisrael outweigh those of learning with a chavrusa. Suppose someone is able to learn on his own but would learn better with a chavrusa. He is therefore reluctant to learn in Eretz Yisrael, where he won’t have an appropriate study partner. Rebbe Yaakov Emden said that this is not an issue. “The air of Eretz Yisrael makes one wise.” The kedushah of Eretz Yisrael will compensate for the loss of a chavrusa.
The Sefer Chasidim writes, though, that there are situations where it would be better to learn alone. If one cannot find an appropriate rebbi or chavrusa, perhaps he would be more successful studying alone. The Pri Megadim writes that some individuals find that they can’t learn in a noisy beis midrash. They, too, might be better served learning alone. The Bad Kodesh writes that in fact many gedolim throughout the generations studied alone for one reason or another. Yet they were very successful. The upshot is that, everything else being equal, one should strive to study with a group or chavrusa, but many have had great success studying alone. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.