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The Essence of Torah

Gemara in Sanhedrin (71a) quotes three different Beraisos in which three Tanna’im teach that there are certain mitzvos that have never happened and never will happen. These are the ben sorer umoreh (the rebellious son), the ir hanidachas (the idolatrous city), and the bayis hamenuga (the leprous house) discussed in our parsha. As the Gemara explains, there are so many specific conditions that must be met in order for these mitzvos to apply that it is virtually impossible for them to become a practical reality. The Gemara explains that the reason that these mitzvos are included in the Torah is so that “we can expound them and receive a reward.” This reason is very difficult. Isn’t there enough Torah for which to receive reward for its study, even without the few blatt of Gemara that deal with these three mitzvos?

The Ba’al HaTanya (Likutei Amarim, perakim 4-5) discusses the phenomenon of the Torah’s inclusion of dinim that may not occur in practice, and Rav Soloveitchik expanded on his words in order to explain this Gemara (Ish HaHalachah 1:6). The Torah indeed includes many positive and negative mitzvos. However, those mitzvos are not really the essence of the Torah; they are ancillary in nature. The essence of the Torah is to give a presentation of what Elokus (G-dliness) is, a description of the Creator. In the words of the Tanya: When a person understands and comprehends a particular halachah in the Mishnah or Gemara correctly and clearly … he thereby comprehends, grasps, and encompasses with his intellect the will and wisdom of the Holy One, Blessed be He, whom no thought can grasp.

For this reason, the Rav described how he felt as if Hashem revealed Himself to him when he discovered something new in Torah, as if he perceived a glimpse of Elokus at that time. When he understood a new insight in Torah, he came into the presence of Hashem. This, the Rav felt, should lead the student of Torah to melt into insignificance, to be overcome by a profound sense of humility, never arrogance.

The Ramban (Hakdamah to his commentary on the Torah) cites from the Zohar that the Torah is referred to as – “the names of Hashem,” containing within it the personality and characteristics of Hashem Himself (see Nefesh HaChayim 4:19).

The difficulty is that the es sence of Hashem is too esoteric and abstract for us to comprehend, “For no human can see Me and live” (Shemos 33:20). As Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer HaIkarim, ma’amar 2, perek 30) wrote, “If I would know [what Elokus is], Iwould be [Him].”

Hashem simplified Elokus by explaining it to us through the practical mitzvos of the Torah. In a similar way, one might present the abstract concepts of atomic energy to children using different colored balls to represent the interaction of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Those models do not accurately depict the actual workings of atomic particles, but serve as a mashal for the uninformed to facilitate a basic understanding of these concepts.

The Torah is similarly a mashal. The passuk in Shmuel I (24:14) says, “As the ‘Proverb of the Ancient One’ says, ‘Wicked ness emanates fromthe wicked.’“ Rashi (Shemos 21:13) explains that the phrase ינומדקה†לשמ† is a reference to the Torah itself, which is the “proverb” of Hashem, the “Ancient One.” Thus, the meaning of the passuk in Shmuel is that the Torah taught us the lesson that “wickedness emanates from the wicked” when it stated, “And G-d brought it [the unintentional manslaughter] to his hand” (Shemos 21:13).

The Chofetz Chaim (Shem Olam 1:12) explains that this not only means that the Torah is the Divine mashal authored by Hashem, but that it is actually a mashal of Hashem. The Chofetz Chaim likens the Torah to a photograph of the king. Even if one has never actually seen the king himself, he is able to recognize the king when he meets him based on the photograph. In the Torah, Hashem gave us a “mashal of a mashal of a mashal” of a representation and image of what Elokus is about, so that we may at least begin to understand Elokus itself.

The passuk in Iyov states, “Then He looked and recorded it; He prepared it and perfected it” (28:27). The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 40:1) explains that Hashem “prepared” the Torah numerous times before He actually gave it to Bnei Yisrael. [For this reason, the ba’al korei must prepare, either two or three times, before krias haTorah (Orach Chaim 139:1).] This passuk refers to the idea that Hashem could not present actual Elokus in the Torah; instead, He provided an illustration of Elokus, on simpler and simpler levels, which could be grasped by human intellect. In the words of the Tanya, “The Torah has journeyed in a descent through hidden stages, stage after stage … until it clothed itself in material matters.” Elokus has been concealed within the Torah.

The overwhelming majority of the dinim of the Torah were given on a level that Man can understand and experience practically. In this way, Man is able to have a connection with Elokus. Of course, we must be careful to fulfill in practice all the mitzvos of the Torah and be careful not to violate any of its issurim, but the ultimate purpose of all of the mitzvos is to serve as a description of Elokus.

Apparently, there were certain aspects of Elokus, corresponding to the three mitzvos mentioned above, that could not be simplified to the level of practical real ity; they had to remain in their initial state. That is why these three mitzvos never happened and never will happen. Still, they had to be included in the body of the Torah because all the six hundred and thirteen mitzvos are necessary for the full description of the image of Hashem.

It is obvious that if the purpose of the Torah were merely to present all the rules in Hashem’s lawbook, there would be no reason to include in it dinim that have absolutely no practical relevance. The fact that there exists even one mitzvah that never happened and never will happen sheds light on the balance of the entire corpus of mitzvos of the Torah. This is what the Gemara is teaching us in its answer, רכש†לבקו†שורד . We must learn the lesson of these three dinim and extend that lesson to the rest of the Torah – that the essence of Torah is to teach us the personality and characteristics of Hashem Himself.

We can now better appreci ate that the Rambam’s ninth Principle of Faith – “That this Torah will not be exchanged” – is a direct outgrowth of the passuk, – “For I, Hashem, have not changed” (Malachi 3:6). Change is relevant only to created beings, not to the Creator Himself. Since the Torah is the wisdom of Hashem, and He and His wisdom are One, the dinim of the Torah, the description of Elokus, are also not subject to change.

This fundamental nature of the body of Torah and its study is borne out by the words of the Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 38a). The Gemara re lates a story in which, according to the understanding of the Maharshal, the Roman government sent two officers to the chachmei Yisrael to determine whether

Jewish law discriminated against non-Jews.

The officers asked specific ques tions, including a question about the financial responsibility of a Jew who owns an ox that gores the ox of a non-Jew. The Jew is not responsible to pay for damages in this case, while in the opposite case, when the ox of a non-Jew gores, the non-Jew would be responsible for full compensation. The rabbis must have been aware that their truthful response to the officers’ questions could lead to a situation of sakanas nefeshos (grave danger). Why, then, the Ma harshal questions, did the rabbis feel compelled to respond truthfully?

There are three cardinal sins that may not be violated even in situations of pikuach nefesh. One of these is the aveirah of avodah zarah, and misrepresentation of Torah Law, the Maharshal argues, falls under that broad category. It was therefore forbidden to alter a halachah even under these pressing circumstances.

Since Torah Law comprises within it an illustration of Elokus, misrepresentation of the Halachah is tantamount to an idolatrous misrepresentation of Elokus itself, a description of a “different” Creator.

The Nefesh HaChayim (4:6) comments that this elucidation of the essence of the Torah has great relevance to the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem (love of Hashem). Rashi (Devarim 6:6) questions the juxtaposition of two pessukim which contain unrelated themes, “You shall love Hashem, your G-d … And these matters that I command you to day shall be upon your heart.” Commenting based on the Sifrei, Rashi explains that it is through the words of the Torah that one will come to recognize Hashem and cleave to His ways. Here, Chazal teach us that the way for one to achieve a relationship of love with Hashem is to place the words of the Torah upon his heart. Just as one must have knowledge of the personality and characteristics of the beloved in order to love that being, one must possess knowledge of Torah in order to bring himself to love Hashem. One can come to love Him after being exposed to His personality, and this is accomplished through the medium of His Torah. [See Ginas Egoz, Pesichah, pp. 2-3; Eretz HaTzvi, Pesichah, p. 1.]

Rav Soloveitchik added that this explains the significance of dancing with the sifrei Torah in a circle during the hakafos on Simchas Torah. The minhag of these hakafos is based on the Gemara in Ta’anis (31a), which teaches that in the future, Hashem will sit in Gan Eden in the midst of the circle He will make for the tzaddikim.

Each one will point with his finger toward Him and pro claim, “Behold, this is our G-d; we hoped to Him and He saved us; this is Hashem to whom we hoped; let us exult and be glad in His salvation” (Yeshayah 25:9). It is reported that the Vilna Gaon was therefore careful that no one stood on the bimah during the hakafos, since the center of the circle is reserved for the Shechinah itself.

The Rav explained that the symbolism behind such a circle is that all the points along the periphery facing the center strive to reach their purpose in the middle of the circle. The intent of the hakafos with the sifrei Torah is to demonstrate that it is limmud haTorah that leads us close to the Shechinah, which is in the center. [See Eretz HaTzvi, p. 91.]

There is another important principle elaborated on in the Tanya (Likutei Amarim, perek 15) – that every Jew has within him a hidden love, תרתוסמה†הבהא , for Hashem. Rav Soloveitchik felt that the source of this love is the act of the mal’ach who teaches each child the entirety of the Torah while in his mother’s womb. As described in the Gemara in Niddah (30b), before birth, the mal’ach hits the baby on his mouth to cause him to forget all this learning. Even though the baby does not seem to possess any factual Torah knowledge upon birth, we should not view the teaching of the mal’ach as an act of futility.

The purpose of the learning must be in order to form an impression on the Jew’s heart. It is in order to implant the “hidden love” for Hashem that will stay with him throughout his entire life, specifically through Torah learning, as the Sifrei teaches. That is why, deep within his personality, every Jew possesses a natural inclination to have a feeling of love towards Hashem.

Rav Soloveitchik continued that this “hidden love” inside every Jew forms the backdrop to understand a din brought by the Rambam (Hilchos Geirushin 2:20). If the beis din proscribes that a man must divorce his wife, but he nevertheless resists, the beis din may beat him until he says, “I want [to give the get].” This is considered a valid get, even though a get given against a husband’s will is invalid.

The Rambam explains that the true “I” of any Jew really wants to do what is right and obey the beis din; there is a “pseudo-personality” that does not allow him to do so. When the court beats the man and he says, “I want,” that statement is coming from his true “I.” This inner will buried with in the heart of every Jew stems from the “hidden love” that he possesses, which prompts him to crave a closeness to Hashem.

Rav Soloveitchik explained further that this principle articulated by the Tanya forms the basis of the statement of the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:5) that there exists a havtachah (promise) that in the end of time, Bnei Yisrael will certainly do teshuvah. How can there be such a promise if we have a principle of faith that guarantees Man bechirah chafshis? Are the Jewish People not free to choose evil rather than good?

The answer must be that innately, the Jew does not want to sin. Any aveirah committed runs contrary to his true nature; sin is an aberration. Therefore, the natural course of events is such that the Jew, even though he has the full ability to exercise his free will, will eventually return to his root nature. This inner nature reflects the תרתוסמה†הבהא† gleaned from the Torah study experienced even before birth, and we are bidden to intensify this love for Hashem through Torah learning subsequently throughout our lives. [See Nefesh HaRav, pp. 72-74.] 


Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a noted Talmudic scholar, has had a distinguished career with YU RIETS for nearly 50 years. He joined the faculty in 1967, at the age of 26, the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since 1971, Rabbi Schachter has been Rosh Kollel in RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics) and also holds the institution’s Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud. Rabbi Schachter also serves as the Posek for the OU’s Kashruth Division.