Torah Study – Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5775
As we approach Shavuot, the festival that, amongst other things, celebrates the giving of the Torah, we should focus on the mitzvah (commandment) of Torah study. In general, the pursuit of knowledge in modern society usually has a clear, utilitarian purpose – to make a living, to further a career, or to become famous. In contrast, Torah study for the layman does not advance his career, or increase his income. Even rabbis and accomplished scholars continue to study for their entire lives. Why isn’t it sufficient to “qualify” and then stop learning? Why does the Torah place so much emphasis on the commandment to study continuously?
The simplest and most obvious explanation is the practical aspect of studying Torah in order to properly observe Torah law. The Mishnah states, “An ignoramus cannot be fearful of sin; an unlearned person cannot be pious.” This vital function of Torah study is considered by some authorities to be the primary reason for the commandment.
It is clear, however, that the obligation goes far beyond knowing the practical application of Jewish law. We study laws that are relevant, as well as those that have no direct application today, such as the laws of the Temple; we study the derivation and sources of the laws; we even study opinions that are not accepted as the final word in law; we study philosophy, mysticism and the text of the Torah. We must look further for an explanation of this obligation that goes beyond simple pragmatism.
According to Jewish belief, the purpose of existence is for human beings to create a relationship with God. In order for a relationship to be meaningful and intimate the two parties must be compatible. We develop this compatibility with God by imitating His actions and traits. Through the performance of the commandments of the Torah we learn to act as God does; by improving our character traits we become similar to God in the realm of character, “just as He is merciful, you should be merciful, just as He is gracious, you should be gracious” Full compatibility can only be achieved, however, when the intellect is also developed appropriately, when we learn to think like God.
An interesting analogy for the idea of Torah study once occurred to me as I read a mystery novel called Poodle Springs. Raymond Chandler had begun writing that book, but died after finishing only the first four chapters. Robert B. Parker decided to complete the book and managed to do an excellent job of imitating the style of the original author, even though his own works are written in a very different style. I began to consider the daunting task that faced Parker in continuing someone else’s novel; he had to think and write just as Chandler would have thought and written. Clearly, Robert Parker would have to do more than just read the first four chapters of the book. He would have to read Chandler’s notes, first drafts and corrections. He would probably have to read everything that Chandler ever wrote, including his books, diary, essays, memos and correspondence. It would help to go to the places that Chandler frequented, to speak to his family and friends, and perhaps to even sit in his office for a while. I do not know whether or not Robert Parker did all of these things, but I believe we are asked to take on a similar task: to complete and perfect the unfinished novel of human life and history. A person who engages in this effort is called a “partner with God in the deeds of creation.” The Creator is Eternal and Omnipotent, but He deliberately left His “novel” unfinished so that we could participate in completing it. In this way, through our own efforts, we come closer to achieving perfection by understanding God’s plan and purpose in creation. The study of Torah is one of the primary means available to humanity to approach the “Mind” of the Creator and His vision. This is why we study the Torah that God wrote, the books of the prophets with whom He communicated, works written by those inspired by His words, and the books of those who probed and scrutinized every letter and nuance of these texts. We delve into the sources, the reasoning, the methodology and the theory in the hope that we can begin to think like the Torah, and to fathom God’s “thoughts.”
The gym where I used to exercise prominently displays posters that portray the ideal to which we, the victims of the gym’s physical trainer, were supposed to aspire. The posters inevitably depict an individual with perfect muscle tone and definition, a perfect tan and perfectly white teeth – he is the ideal. Reality is brutally exposed by the mirrors strategically placed in front of the exercise machines. Perhaps the gym’s owners are inspired by Heinrich Heine’s principle that “without tension there is no creativity.” They hope that by sensing the tension between the real and the ideal, we will strive toward the ideal, although often the result is despair, not ambition.
The study of Torah is also an exposure to the ideal world, to what the world should look like and how people should behave – not in the realm of physical perfection like the health club, but in the realm of moral and spiritual perfection. The study of Torah teaches us how to apply the ideals of the Torah to the real world and how to elevate the real world to the Torah ideal. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik expressed this concept succinctly:
“When Halachic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand… His approach begins with an ideal creation and concludes with a real one… The essence of the Halachah, which was received from G-d, consists of creating an ideal world and cognizing the relationship between that ideal world and our concrete environment in all its visible manifestations and underlying structures. There is no phenomenon, entity, or object in this concrete world which the [pre-existing] Halachah does not approach with its ideal standard.”