The first verse of Parshat Bereshiet does not only describe the beginning of Creation but also sheds light on to the purpose and goal of one of the paramount commandments: Torah study.
The verse writes: “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth.”(Bereshiet 1:1). Rashi, the classic Biblical Commentator, quotes a question in the name of his father Rabbi Yitzchak, “It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from ‘This month is to you,’ (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded.” If the primary purpose of the Torah is to relay the commandments —to serve as a handbook of spiritual do’s and don’ts — then it would seem that the entire book of Bereshiet which relates stories of the lives of the ancestors of the Jewish people need not be studied. In fact, according to this theory, the Torah should have begun with the Parsha of Bo which describes the first commandment given to the Jewish people, i.e. the mitzvah of the new month. This opening question of Rabbi Yitzchak’s is very well known; in fact, there are many answers given by the classical commentaries which address the purpose and necessity of starting the narrative of the Torah from Creation of the World rather than from the first commandment. All of the various explanations have one thing in common, namely they suggest that there is far more depth in the purpose of Torah study than just the knowledge needed to perform the mitzvot. What then is the true purpose and nature of Torah study?
In order to appreciate the true nature and purpose of Torah study, it is first necessary to understand the fundamental place that the studying of the text of the Torah, both the Written Torah and the Oral Law, has played in Jewish living. The verse in Devarim states: “And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”(Devarim 6:7) Similarly, the verse in Sefer Yehoshua writes, “You shall meditate on it day and night.” (Yehoshua 1:8) Furthermore, the Rambam in Hilchot Talmud Torah elaborates on the specific details of this mitzvah and explains that the commandment to teach a child Torah begins when they are first able to speak and the obligation to continue studying exists until a person departs from this world (1:6, 10). The teaching of the Torah to the next generation, and the importance placed on education, has been a constant theme throughout Jewish history and is one which has always set the Jewish people apart from other cultures of the day.
Archaeological evidence has shown that in ancient times (even as early as the 8th Century B.C.E.) there was some semblance of basic schooling for Jewish youngsters in the Land of Israel. (Radical Then, Radical Now, pg. 128). A monk who lived during the 12th Century once remarked, “A Jew, however poor, if he had ten sons, would put them all to letters, and not for gain…but for the understanding of God’s law; and not only his sons but also his daughters.” (ibid, pg.159) The great emphasis placed on Torah study throughout Jewish history can be encapsulated by the following Talmudic dictum: “But the study of Torah” – Rabbi Berakhya and Rabbi Hiyya of Kfar Dehumin [disagreed]. One said: Even the entire world does not equal a single word of the Torah. And the other one said: Even all the mitzvot of the Torah do not equal a single word of the Torah.” (Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 1:1)
There are two facets of Torah study which elevate it from just one amongst many mitzvoth in which a person must strive for, and distinguishes it as a most integral and central endeavour in the life of a Jew. Those facets are both pragmatic and spiritual in nature to be further explained below.
Firstly, a verse from Book of Devarim delineates the practical and pragmatic side of Torah study. It writes: “And you shall learn them, and keep them, and do them…” (Devarim 5:1) On the most basic level, one cannot properly carry out God’s commandments unless they take the time to learn about them. Since fulfilling mitzvot is a fundamental goal of Jewish life, it quickly becomes clear that one needs to involve themselves diligently in Torah study in order to accomplish this to the best of his ability. This idea is further described in the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin, “Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper storey of Nithza’s house, in Lod, when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater, for it leads to practice. Then they all answered and said: Study is greater, for it leads to action.” (40b) At the end of this debate, the Rabbis came to a consensus that the study of Torah is paramount because it leads a person to the knowledge of what to do not only in specific cases but in every varied situation in life. Similarly, the Talmud states: “Our Rabbis taught: ‘And you shall teach them diligently’ – the words of the Torah should be sharply impressed in your mouth, so that if a person asks you anything [concerning them], you will not need to stammer about it, but you can answer him immediately.” (Kiddushin 30a) Not only does a person have an obligation to study the laws related to the commandments but he must also make every effort to remember that which he has learned so that the knowledge can be shared with others.
However, there is far more to the ultimate purpose of Torah study than just pragmatic and technical knowhow implementation of the mitzvot. It goes beyond the realms of intellect and cognition and reaches into the realms of the spiritual and sublime.
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the 20th Century, explains this significance as follows: “Torah study, aside from being an intellectual, educational endeavour, enlightening the student and providing him with the information needed to observe the law, is a redemptive cathartic process – it sanctifies the personality. It purges the mind of unworthy desires and irreverent thoughts, uncouth emotions and vulgar drives. The parchment of talmud Torah is the human mind, the human heart and personality. Indeed, a new dimension is added to human experience through the study of Torah: sanctity. “(Torah and Humility) In other works, Rav Soloveitchik writes: “When a person delves into God’s Torah and reveals it’s inner light and splendour…and enjoys the pleasure of creativity and innovation, he merits communion with the Giver of the Torah. The ideal of clinging to God is realized by means of the coupling of the intellect with the Divine Idea which is embodied in rules, laws and traditions…” (Al Ahavat Ha-Torah, pp. 410-411) Much more than just gaining knowledge and practical application of the mitzvot, the study of Torah spiritually elevates the entirety of man. An individual engrossed in Torah, though rooted firmly on Earth, is walking the pathways of heaven in an intimate relationship with God, the Giver of the Torah.
When we begin the journey of Torah study we must appreciate this duality – the pragmatic and the spiritual — to fully reap the benefits of the endeavour. Delve into the timeless texts of the Torah to see what practical applications are required for mitzvah observance for our everyday lives. And secondly, but perhaps even more importantly, we must embrace and internalize those messages so that they can enable us to elevate and sanctify our personality to merit a true connection with God.