Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Noach
To dedicate this lesson

Parshat Noach

1. Two Torahs 2. Covenantal Foundation 3. Hints in the Shma 4. A "Permissible Pleasure" 5. Torah and the Process of Redemption


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Two Torahs
2. Covenantal Foundation
3. Hints in the Shma
4. A "Permissible Pleasure"
5. Torah and the Process of Redemption

The Midrash teaches that the Holy One Blessed be He, chose the Jewish people from among the seventy nations of the world, and gave us the written Torah. Although the meaning of each of the laws recorded in the Torah is, at first glance, not clear, the practical details of the Torah's laws are elucidated in what has become known as the "Oral Torah," which includes the Mishnah, Talmud, and responsa literature. Put simply, the Chumash deals with principles, while the Mishnah and Talmud explain how to put them into practice. This distinction is clearly reflected in the volume of material of the Five Books of the (Written Torah) - in contrast with the thousands of volumes of halachic literature - "Oral Torah" - that have amassed over the centuries. "It is longer than the length of the land and wider than the sea," says the Book of Job in reference to the Oral Torah.

"You won't find it in the Land of the Living" is another verse from Job that our sages says refers to the Oral Torah. Are we to take this statement literally - namely, that we will discover the Oral Torah in the "Land of the Dead," and what message does such an inference intend to convey?

From the perspective of our Sages of Blessed Memory, anyone who wishes to pursue the study Torah while simultaneously pursuing a life of physical pleasures, leisure or honor is in for a rude awakening! Only someone prepared to sacrifice life's material benefits for Torah study - a Jew willing, so to speak, to "kill himself over Torah"-- has a hope of truly understanding the wisdom of Torah. The same theme can be found in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers; a mishnah there states, "This is the [proper] approach to Torah [study]: "[Be prepared to] consume bread with salt, drink water out of a flash, sleep on the ground, live a life of pain, and toil in Torah".

The Midrash also teaches that study of the Oral Torah lies at the heart of God's covenant with the Jewish people. A reference to the centrality of Torah study appears in the 34th chapter of the Book of Shmot, where we read: "These words are the basis of my covenant with you." Whereas the Written Torah is concise and can be scanned relatively quickly, the Oral Torah is detailed and extensive; its study demands the exertion of tremendous intellectual and spiritual energy. Although this sort of Torah study is no doubt challenging, we must remember that God's covenant with Israel was founded on the basis of the Oral Torah. In fact, it is the Oral Torah which forges the tight internal bond between Israel and the Holy One Blessed be He, and it is the most fitting expression of the unique treasured status of the Jewish people.

How so?
The Written Torah descended from on High, was presented to Israel on Mt. Sinai, and was dictated by God to Moses; the Oral Torah, in contrast, is comprised of our understanding of the Divine Word. It is the articulation of how we - with our human minds and abilities, and with the souls God granted us- understand Torah. This relationship is apparent in the blessings we recite over Torah study daily: "You gave us a True Torah, and planted eternal life within us." In other words, God has placed in our midst a Divine, eternal spiritual treasure that enables us to interpret the Torah in accordance with His Will.

Our students, here in Yeshivat Beit El, have chosen to take upon themselves to become immersed in intensive Torah study, and to thereby help the ongoing existence or maintenance of the world. This principle - that Torah study justifies the existence of the world, is reflected in the verse, "Had I not established my covenant, I would have not created day and night, the laws of Heaven and Earth..."

In another Midrash, our sages teach that the first paragraph of the "Shma" speaks of the effort needed to learn Torah, and that this is the intention of the verse in that passage that requires you to love God with "all of your might." The second paragraph of the Shma, however, refers to the fulfillment of mitzvot (commandments). There is no reference there to performing mitzvot "with all your might." Tosfot in tractate Berachot explains that the second paragraph of Shma also includes a Divine promise to provide rain to the Land of Israel, but that this is a reference to those Jews who fulfill the Torah and perform God's will "in an incomplete manner. "

On the surface, it is hard to fathom how those who fulfill the Torah's commandments are considered to be serving God incompletely!

The teaching can, however, be understood by noting that mitzvot can be fulfilled without the toil of Torah study, and that such service of God is deemed incomplete, lacking the "might" provided by Torah study. The effort invested in the learning of Torah is the root of everything - it's the pinnacle of Israel's cleaving to its God. This also explains why the first paragraph, which deals with the learning of Torah, makes no reference to reward: those who toil in Torah have such great merit, that it cannot be measured according to any "this-worldly" criteria.

Torah study, for the Jew, is a great pleasure. There is no need to worry that this enjoyment is improper, that learning Torah with the intention of enjoying it, constitutes an improper motivation. In fact, the "Iglei Tal" writes that one who feels a sense of pleasure when he understands a Torah concept - either when he has successfully clarified an issue or discovered a new truth, should not think that this is a negative thing. Just the opposite is true: This sense of joy is a form of spiritual enjoyment, it is Divine, and an intrinsic part of the experience of Torah study!

Some people who have tasted Torah learning say to themselves, I know I am supposed to push myself to learn, but it's hard for me to do so".

Even when you feel this way, you have to persevere in your learning. There are others who insist on giving of themselves only when such effort comes from "deep down inside" These people fear behaving in a rote manner, and strive to be "authentic." In response to this kind of concern, we should recall the midrash that states that any learning of Torah that a person accomplishes truly comes "from deep down inside," even though it doesn't "seem" to be flowing naturally. The hesitation and uncertainty many feel are a product of our "Yetzer Ha'Ra" - or evil inclination - not of our true desires. Our sages teach us that an intense cleaving to the Creator of the World and to his Torah is always present deep within the Jew; looking at the issue this way, we not need force ourselves to learn, but instead "overcome" our evil inclination. The notion that "forcing ourselves" to learn may prove psychologically or spiritually damaging is thus unfounded, because when we exert ourselves to learn Torah, we don't directly clash with our own will; instead, we are engaged in a struggle with our evil inclinations, with a force that actually interferes with our proper service of God.

It should also be remembered that for most people, motivational problems and the like are more prevalent at the outset, but fade away as time passes, as one gets more used to the routine of Torah study. In fact, struggling with the challenges we've discussed is a process that actually helps build character.

At exceptional points in Jewish history, like the times in which we are now living, the greatest contribution a Jew can make to his people is to learn Torah in general, and to learn "Torat Eretz Yisrael" in particular. The term "Torat Eretz Yisrael" refers to the learning of Torah in the Land of Israel, coupled with an understanding of the uniqueness of the Land of Israel. It also entails an understanding that we, the Jewish people, are in the midst of a process of national redemption. A holistic approach to Torah study, in all of its facets - including the learning of the principles of Jewish philosophy and belief, as well as the more mystical dimension of Torah - helps shed light on this redemptive process and moves it along...
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