Shavuot-The Dual Nature of Torah Study

The first verse of Bereishit not only describes the beginning of Creation, but also sheds light on to the purpose and goal of one of the paramount commandments: Torah study.

The verse says: “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth.”(Bereishit 1:1)Rashi 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,’(Shemot 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded.”(Rashi to Bereishit 1:1)

If the primary purpose of the Torah is to relay the commandments, i.e., to serve as a handbook of spiritual dos and don’ts, then it would seem that the entire book of Bereishit (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 Parshat Bo, which describes the first commandment given to the Jewish People, i.e., the mitzvah of the new month (which begins with the words “This month is to you…”).

This opening question of Rabbi Yitzchak’s is very well known; in fact, there are many answers given by the classical commentaries that try to answer it. 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 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: “Teach them thoroughly to your sons. Speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way, when you lie down, and when you get up.”(Devarim 6:7) Similarly, the verse in Yehoshua writes: “You should contemplate them day and night.”(Yehoshua 1:8) Furthermore, the Rambam in Hilchot Talmud Torah elaborates on specific details of this mitzvah and explains that the commandment to teach a child Torah begins when the child is first able to speak, and that the obligation to continue studying exists until a person departs from this world (Mishneh Torah, Talmud Torah, 1:6, 10.).The centrality of the teaching of Torah has been a constant theme throughout Jewish history and is one that 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 eighth century BCE), there was a semblance of basic schooling for Jewish youngsters in the Land of Israel (At Tel Lakhish in southern Israel, the first five letters of the Hebrew alphabet were found scratched into the plaster of an ancient staircase from the eighth century BCE, by a child learning how to write. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Radical Then, Radical Now, pg. 128)

Additionally, the Talmud recounts the innovative mandatory educational ordinance of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla, a Kohen Gadol in the period of the Second Temple (approximately 64 CE). The Talmud recounts his ordinance: “Local authorities should install teachers of children, in every district and town, and they should bring in children of ages six or seven to be taught by these teachers.” (Bava Batra 21a) Similarly, the vision of Jewish education was also noticed by the world at large. A monk who lived during the twelfth 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.” (Radical Then, Radical Now, 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 [that] even the entire world does not equal a single word of the Torah, and the other one said [that] even all the mitzvot of the Torah do not equal a single word of the Torah.”(Talmud Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 1:1.)

There are two facets of Torah study that elevate it from just one amongst many mitzvot and distinguishes it as a most integral and central endeavor in the life of a Jew. Those facets are both pragmatic and spiritual in nature.

First, a verse from the Book of Devarim delineates the practical and pragmatic side of Torah study, when it says: “Learn them, and be careful to observe them…”(Devarim 5:1) On the most basic level, we cannot properly carry out God’s commandments unless we 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 oneself diligently in Torah study in order to accomplish this to the best of his ability. This idea is further described in the Talmud: “Rabbi Tarfon and the elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza’s house, in Lod, when this question was raised before them: “Is study greater, or action?” Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: “Action is greater.” Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: “Study is greater, for it leads to action.” Then they all answered and said: “Study is greater, for it leads to action.”(Kiddushin 40b)

In other words, at the end of their debate, the rabbis came to the consensus that the study of Torah is paramount because it leads a person to the knowledge of what to do in every varied situation of 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.”(Ibid. 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 “know-how” implementation of the mitzvot. It goes beyond the realms of intellect and cognition and reaches into the realms of the spiritual and sublime.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains this significance as follows:
Torah study, aside from being an intellectual, educational endeavor, 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 (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Torah and Humility, ).

He writes elsewhere: “When a person delves into God’s Torah and reveals its inner light and splendor…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 HaTorah, pgs. 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 — in order to fully reap the benefits of the endeavor. We should delve into the timeless texts of the Torah to see what practical applications are required for mitzvah observance for our everyday lives. And second, but perhaps even more important, we must try to take the time to embrace and internalize those messages so that they can enable us to elevate and sanctify our personality to merit a true connection with God.

Excerpt from A People A Country A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from The Land of Israel pg.29-33

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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