To Toil in Torah-Thoughts on Parshat Bechukotai

Dedicated in Memory of Sholom Yeshaya Gross z”l

The Torah is the very foundation of the Jewish people, and from the day Moses brought down the 10 Commandments from Mount Sinai, the study of the Torah has been an integral aspect of our national identity. What is the purpose of this study, and what impact is it designed to have on those who engross themselves in it? The first verse in this week’s Torah portion discusses this idea, and its explanation leaves an inspiring message for our times.

Many people look at the purpose and importance of Torah study through a purely intellectual and utilitarian perspective— it is imperative to study the Torah in order to understand how to properly fulfil the myriad mitzvot that arise in Jewish life. This understanding has its roots in a discussion between the Rabbis found 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) From this Talmudic episode, it seems quite clear that Torah study is a means through which a person develops the practical knowledge of how to follow a Torah-true halachik lifestyle throughout various situations one encounters throughout his life.

While engrossing in Torah study in order to acquire the knowledge to successfully fulfil one’s mitzvah obligations is an extremely important endeavour, upon closer inspection of other traditional sources, it becomes clear that there is an additional merit to the study of Torah even if it has no practical mitzvah application and will not ultimately lead to practical results. The first verse of this week’s Torah portions states: “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them.”(Vayikra 26:3) Rashi, the classical Biblical commentator, explains the difference between the command to ‘follow My statutes,’ and ‘observe My commandments.’He explains that both of the statements are relating to two modes of Torah study. ’If you follow My statutes’ is commanding a person to occupy themselves in the toil of Torah study even when that study will not necessarily lead to any practical application, while “and observe My commandments” is instructing a person to study the Torah in order to facilitate the proper observance of the mitzvot. According to Rashi’s elucidation of this verse, there is an additional principle in the study of Torah, and that is to occupy and engross oneself in the learning of the Torah regardless of the practical ramifications.

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin provides a few examples of this concept while describing the laws of the rebellious son. It writes: “There never was a rebellious son, nor will there ever be. Then why was it written? Learn and receive reward…. There never was a condemned city, nor will there ever be. Then why was it written? Learn and receive reward …. There never was a leprous house, nor will there ever be. Then why was it written? Learn and receive reward.”(Sanhedrin 71a) Though none of the cases mentioned in this Tractate of Sanhedrin will ever have practical implementations, the Sages still deemed it meritorious to study their theoretical application. Similarly, the Midrash writes: “It is for his own good that a man learns Torah and then forgets it. For were a person to learn Torah and never forget it, he would involve himself in Torah study for two or three years and then devote himself to his own vocation. He would never again involve himself in Torah study for the rest of his life. Since, however, a man learns Torah and then forgets it, he never gives up [his involvement] in the words of Torah.”(Kohelet Rabba, 1:13) Even if one will never apply that which he has learned and even if he will forget all the knowledge that he has acquired, the pursuit itself is of utmost importance. From the two sources mentioned above, our Sages send a clear message: the study of Torah is not just a means through which to acquire knowledge for mitzvah observance, rather there is another reason to engage in it.

Rav Soloveitchik presents a beautiful message that addresses the additional purpose of toil in Torah. He explains, “Torah should not just be an intellectual pastime. True, one can enjoy the intellectual creativity involved in Talmud Torah, but Torah learning should be an emotional experience as well; one should feel a tremor when engaged in it. The Torah should be seen not just as a book, but as a living personality…with whom one can establish an ‘I-thou’ relationship…It is true that the exterior of Torah is formal and abstract, but behind the shell of conceptual abstractions there is a great fire burning, giving warmth and love, and one can love the Torah in turn with great passion. When you apprehend the Torah as a personality, not just as a book, it infiltrates your emotional as well as your intellectual life.”(Shiurei HaRav- On the Love of Torah, pg. 182-183) Daily study allows one to develop an emotional relationship – a real, genuine and loving connection – to the Torah.

In his work “U-Vikashtem Mi-Sham,” Rav Soloveitchik shares a personal anecdote which epitomizes this ideal. “I remember when I was very young, I was a solitary, lonely little boy, afraid of the world. It was cold and strange to me; it seemed to me that everything mocked me. But I had one friend, and he was—do not laugh—The Rambam. How did we become friends? Simple—we met. The Rambam was a regular guest in our house…Father sat and learned Torah day and night. A group of young scholars…gathered around him and drank his words with thirst. Father’s lectures were given in the main hall of grandfather’s house, where my bed also stood. I would sit in bed and listen to father’s words. He always spoke of the Rambam…I did not understand a word of what was spoken, but two clear impressions were formed in my simple, young mind: first, the Rambam is surrounded by opponents and “enemies” who wish to do him evil, and second, his only defender is Father…Father would speak and the eyes of the students were riveted on him. Slowly, slowly, the tension would ease as father would begin to tread with might and strength…The difficulties were solved the passage was explained. The Rambam emerged the victor. Father’s face beamed with joy—he had defended his “friend”, Rav Moshe ben Maimon. A smile of pleasure appeared on the Rambam’s face. Even I participated in the simcha. I was ecstatic. I would jump from my bed and run to my mother’s bedroom with my heart singing: “Mother, Mother, the Rambam is right, he beat the Raivad! Father helped him. Father is wonderful!” (Pg.143-144). The hallmark of a true Torah Sage is one who toils in study for both intellectual/practical understanding, as well as to develop a deep emotional and personal connection to the Torah. For the young Rav Soloveitchik, the Rambam was as present and real a figure as his very own Father. At that formative age, he developed both an intellectual and emotional relationship with the Torah, its Sages, its teachings and its mitzvot.

This past week, a very special young man who embodied these two aspects of Torah study left this World. My classmate, Shaya z”l, was a person who influenced so many during his short but meaningful life. For his parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, community and the people of Israel, Yehi Zichro’ Baruch—may his memory be a blessing.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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