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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Preperation for Shavuot

Study or Action

The sages of the Mishnah posed the following question: Which is greater, study or practice? “Rabbi Tarphon answered, saying, 'Practice is greater'; Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: 'Study is greater..' Rabbi Eliyahu Brin provides insight.
Dedicated to the memory of
Asher Ben Haim
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The sages of the Mishnah posed the following question: Which is greater, study or practice? "Rabbi Tarphon answered, saying, 'Practice is greater'; Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: 'Study is greater'; everybody answered, saying: 'Study is greater for it leads to practice.'"

This dialogue is itself quite problematic. After all, if the greatness of Torah study lies in the fact that it leads to a desired goal - i.e., practice - then obviously practice is the greater of the two acts. This being the case, how is it that the sages concluded the opposite, that study is greater?

It is also necessary to resolve the conclusion of the above source with the fact that the sages so emphatically pointed Israel's greatness on account of their having pronounced "We shall perform [the Torah]" before pronouncing "We shall listen [to what is in it]" - to the point where they likened Israel to ministering angels. Indeed, the Maharal of Prague explains ad locum that Israel was created essentially "to worship God through the performance of deeds, and the knowledge of a particular deed is secondary to its performance..." (Tiferet Yisrael, ch. 29). This being the case, it would appear that performance is of greatest importance and that herein lies Israel’s true prominence and uniqueness.

It is possible to resolve this seeming contradiction in the following manner:
The purpose of existence, the final stage of creation, finds fullest expression in the innovative might of the world of action - the commandments - the capacity to anchor lofty spiritual treasures in every detail of worldly manifestation. The complete marriage between heaven and earth, between physical and spiritual, takes place when lofty ideals find definite expression in the universe; there is no corner or aspect of creation, neither a grain of sand nor a clod of earth, that does not possess an inner soul and potential for elevation. All of this resides within us, like an inner longing for essential life, like a divine eye, beyond rationale and mind. This is the "We shall perform" which preceded "We shall listen." Rabbi A..I. Kook explains this concept as follows (Orot HaEmuna):

The spirit traverses the expanses, ascending to purity's heavens and aspiring and longing to be crowned with abundant furnishings - the commandments and their practical details, calculated and artistically-divinely pronounced - via worldly manners, via fine points of Torah and Torah scholars...who can perceive the pleasant flutter

We see, then, that nothing compares to the lofty perfection which is contained in the practical, commandment-governed world, and, it follows, in each and every commandment, "for the quintessence of human action encompasses within its smallest point great numbers of ideals and broad concepts that enable this quintessence to serve its purpose and in life.." (Orot HaTeshuva 12:6).

Yet, in what appears to be a contradiction to all of what we have said thus far, King Solomon, the wisest of men, teaches us that "a commandment is like a candle, and the Torah is like its light" - and, hence, the status of the Torah and its study are much more elevated. Yet, this calls for deeper understanding: Only by clinging to the study of Torah can we succeed in merging with essential desire of God, the divine, heavenly light which is capable of cracking the exterior wrapping of material existence which separates and conceals. The wonderful arrangement of interplay between heaven and earth in the world of deeds and commandments is capable of appearing in the world and advancing from a mere potential force to an actual expression. This is true because for those who study Torah and "kill themselves" in the "Tent of Torah" it is already absolute truth, life of illumination and love wherein practical performance is already a double expression, like the soul in a body.. Therefore, study is greater, for it is precisely this which leads to practice. "The Torah itself," writes Rabbi Kook, "The ideal of knowledge of Judaism from its source, its spiritual and practical aspects, is more lofty than the essence of the exact performance of each individual law...studying Torah without any ulterior motives leads its student to practice and to loving fulfillment of all of its details...and through the dew of Torah he feels the force of life growing and spreading through all expanses of existence (Shemoneh Kevatzim 1, 639).

This is in keeping with that which appears in the familiar instructive chapters in Orot HaTorah (11:6): "The study of Torah causes all spiritualism to fold into the treasuries of life, the source of divine and living integrity which is the foundation of the Torah. The presence of these branches in their elevated source causes them to acquire the lofty and sacred nature....and after this, when they return the body, they possess tremendous abundance, and the practical results are blessed and refined.."

It makes sense that if Torah study is great because it leads to practice, and students of Torah act as a living heart for all those who occupy themselves with the faithful fulfillment of commandments and the needs of the community, then this should all the more so be the way to relate to the strengthening of the nation in its land, "for Torah students who cling to the tree of life are the ones who feel the true life of the nation as a whole...and they are comparable to a heart which gives life to the body via their spiritual vitality which is forever joyful...they give might to the nation as a whole to rise up and be strong (Ein Ayah, Berakhot 9, 338).

The profusion of rejuvenated life in our land which accompanies the revealed redemption is being illuminated in many places by the abundance of Torah study and national activity. The spirit of the people of Israel returning to their land emanates from the sources of the nations soul - sources to which both study and performance, individual and nation, are attached - and each receives a blessing from the other. These elements prepare us for the appearance of the Messiah, the son of David. King David’s entire personality is a kind of manifestation of the Torah within the earthly realm of practice, disseminating and illuminating as one. Hence, his merit alone was what made possible the bringing of the Holy Ark - Torah’s fortress and bearer of the divine light - into Jerusalem’s Holy of Holies in the time of King Solomon. This act served to assure the undying influence of Torah and the complete elevation of life. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons that we read the scroll of Ruth (which relates King David’s lineage) on the Shavuot Festival.

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The translation from "Orot Teshuva" was taken from Dr. Alter Metzger’s book, "Rabbi Kook’s Philosophy of Repentance."

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