V. The Blessings Before Torah Study
Israel's High Stature Leads to our Connection with Torah
As we cited in the first article of this series, the Vilna Gaon referred to "the emuna of Israel and Torah." Jewish emuna, of course, stems from Torah, but the very foundation begins with Israel, as the Birkhot HaTorah (Blessings Over the Torah) emphasize. Hashem created and chose Israel, and created Torah as well, and then matched us up together. And from amid this profound connection, we arrive at the true understanding of the connection between Israel and G-d, via the Torah.
The Blessings Over the Torah are three:
1. "Barukh atah – You, G-d, are the source of all blessing… Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to engage in Torah."
This first Torah blessing is a "mitzvah blessing," just like any blessing (bracha) that we recite over a mitzvah, such as putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, and the like. We recite such a blessing over almost every mitzvah; this is the way we approach the mitzvot, via a blessing. The bracha creates a connection of thought and speech with the Divine source, before we actually perform the mitzvah. The Halakha (Jewish Law) stipulates that the blessing is recited before the mitzvah, not during or after.
2. The second blessing (which some say is a continuation of the previous one) is V'haarev na, a request that we experience and attain the sweetness of the Torah: "Please, Hashem our G-d, make the words of the Torah sweet and pleasant in our mouths and in the mouths of Your nation, the House of Israel…" We ask that G-d grant us the merit to feel delight in the words and ideas of Torah.
Why do we have to request this? Is it conceivable that Torah study should not be sweet for us?! The Torah is Divine and G-dly! What could be sweeter than that??
In truth, it is not that simple. Yes, we have a very sacred and holy soul, but it dwells in our physical bodies and in the materialism of "This World" (as opposed to the "World to Come"). A sensation that is found in our body, and even our intellect that has to do with our bodies and the physical world – these do not generally "get along" with the exalted Torah. As long as our physical circumstances are so acutely in charge of our physical lives, it is actually not so simple to study Torah. The Torah is Divine; it is Heavenly intelligence and brain power of the upper G-dly spirit – while we are just flesh and blood.
Even our spirituality is of a physical type. Our intellect, emotions, and creative imagination are all busy with things connected with us and our physical lives. The body is a body, that which is physical is physical, and our lustful passions cannot be denied or ignored; they exist within us.
It's no simple task to get out of this cycle. For many people, especially for those who are just beginning to study Gemara (Talmud), it is very hard to learn. They often think, "What are all these details and assumptions and complex questions and answers? Why must I engage with subtle differences between things that don't seem realistic? How do they all connect with me and my life? What do I get out of this?"
This is why the Men of the Great Assembly instituted, over 2,000 years ago, a special prayer blessing that the People of Israel have recited over the centuries, and continue to recite, in which we ask and even plead that the Torah be "sweet in our mouths!"
It is important to pay attention to the words of this blessing and realize what they say. When you say, "Make sweet, Hashem our G-d" – think about what you are uttering: "Master of the Universe, I entreat You, please grant me the merit to actually feel the sweetness of the words of Your Torah. May my physicality be purified, and may my intellect and understanding be refined; may I be privileged to understand what Torah is, and what the power of Torah is! May I grasp how even one passage of Tosafot [a basic Talmudic commentary] can turn about entire worlds! May I internalize how out of just a few lines in the Gemara, Rashi or Tosafot, entire worlds can be built!"
The Sages teach in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) that "one who engages in Torah for its own sake, thus builds a palace on-high." Entire worlds, the hosts of the heavens, and everything that happens on earth – everything derives from the power of someone engaging in Torah study for its own sake, thus bringing the Redemption closer. We must pray to be privileged to understand this.
3. The third bracha over the Torah, Asher bachar banu, underscores the fact that G-d chose us from among all the nations, and our connection with Torah that results.
The Gemara (B'rachot 11b) says that this blessing is "the choicest of all the blessings," the greatest one. Rashi clarifies that it is "the choicest of all the Blessings Over the Torah."
The words of this bracha are: "Barukh atah – You, G-d, are the source of all blessing, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who chose us from amongst all the nations, and gave us His Torah. You, G-d, are the source of all blessing, giver of the Torah." And we must understand: What does G-d's choice of Israel have to do with the Torah and its brachot? The choice of Israel is undoubtedly important – so important that it actually deserves a blessing of its own. And this is why we in fact recite the Ahavat Olam (Ahavah Rabbah) blessing just before Kriat Shma, morning and evening, which states as follows: "You, G-d, have loved us with an everlasting love… You have chosen [Your] nation Israel with love." But what does this have to do with the importance of Torah? One who is about to study Torah is busy with that, and is not thinking about the Nation of Israel and its uniqueness! The blessing over the Torah should have said, "He Who gave us the Torah of Truth… the blessed G-d Who gives the Torah"??
But, as we see, the Sages did not agree. And not only did they wish to emphasize the fact that Israel was Divinely chosen, they also called this blessing – "He Who chose us from amongst all the nation" – the "choicest one" of all three Torah blessings!
What this tells us is that we approach the study of Torah not only as individuals, but with a sense of being part of the nation that G-d specifically chose. We approach with the sense and recognition that there is a special Divine value to the Nation of Israel.
We don't come to study Torah simply because there is Torah, but rather because G-d gave it to us. Note that the fact that He gave it is not sufficient; He gave it to us. The Gemara teaches that not everyone can study Torah, and that a Gentile who engages in Torah study is liable for the death penalty. Similarly, one who teaches him Torah is also censured quite strongly. How can this be?
In fact, the Torah was not granted to all of mankind; it is Divine, and was given to us! "He who chose us from amongst all the nations and gave us His Torah…" – to the Nation of Israel. And this is why the Men of the Great Assembly formulated the main blessing before Torah study in this way and with this concept.
This is as we cited above: The Gaon of Vilna said that the Sefer HaKuzari is "holy and pure, and includes the foremost fundamentals of Jewish emuna and Torah." That is, once we understand what the Nation of Israel truly is, we have the ability to approach Torah in a true and correct manner.