The final words of the Torah record Moses’ last days. The haftarah picks up where the Torah left off with Joshua, Moses’ chief disciple, taking upon himself the mantle of leadership. As the people’s new leader, Joshua would inevitably face new challenges. With this in mind, God’s initiated Joshua with the following words: “Let not this Book of Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful” (Joshua 1:8)
In the Talmud, the charge was understood to apply to each and every Jew. There is, however, a debate over its intention. Was it meant as a command (mitzvah) or as a blessing (bracha)? The majority of the sages view it as a mitzvah obligating each Jew to study Torah. The debate then moves onto the exact nature of the obligation. Rabbi Ammi argues that a Jew must study at least a chapter of Torah every morning and every evening. Rabbi Yohanan takes a minimalist approach, saying it is sufficient to recite the Shema every morning and evening. Still, he qualifies this by noting that it is forbidden to make this “minimum” known to the “amme haaretz – the common folk”, lest they not aspire to anything more. Rava, however, disagreed, insisting that the common folk should be made aware of this minimum requirement since it might inspire them to study even more.
All of these opinions stand in contrast with that of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani, who learned from a verse describing Joshua that he treasured nothing more than the study of Torah: “This verse is neither obligation or mitzvah; rather it is a blessing. For when the Holy One, blessed be He, saw that the words of the Torah were most precious to Joshua, as it is written (Exodus 33:11): ‘His attendant, Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, would not leave the tent’ (where Moses was receiving prophecy). God said to him, ‘Joshua, since the words of the Torah are so precious to you, [I promise that] ‘this Book of the Teaching will not cease from your lips’!” (adapted from Menahot 99b)
What is the impetus for this debate? The answer to this question is insightfully given by Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, the 14th century French commentator and philosopher, who maintained that there were two reasons for studying Torah. He asserted that a person studies the legal sections of the Torah in order to act properly. Study perfects a person’s deeds. In a similar fashion, the study of the non-legal sections of the Torah perfects the human aspect of a person. Is it any wonder then that God would command Joshua or any of us to pursue the study of Torah? Could there be any greater blessing that God could give us?