Reflections Upon Birkot HaTorah (Part 2 of 2)

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

            If this concept (of the intertwining of norm and yearning) is elucidated through the substance and sequence of entire berakhot, others are expressed via specific phrases or even a single word; and, of these, several may be noted.  One is the term "lishmah" with which - in most current readings, although not, inter alia, the Rambam's - the body of "ve-ha'arev na" concludes.  The thrust of the word is itself multifaceted.  At one plane, it relates to the motivation of Torah study - as, by the same token, of other mitzvot.  Lishmah defines the ideal of serving the Ribbono Shel Olam for His sake rather than for our own; in order to enhance the Kingdom of Heaven rather than for the pursuit of adventitious reward.  In this vein, as the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:2-5), in particular, emphasized, it is integrally related to the mitzva of ahavat Hashem, the call to love the Ribbono Shel Olam with our whole being, and to serve Him accordingly.  (On the Ramban's view, the concept is also related to a kindred mitzva, "le-avdo be-khol levavkhem" - to serve Him with all your heart.  See his animadversion upon the Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot, Assei 5.)

            At a second plane, however, the term is more narrowly focused.  It posits Torah knowledge as an independent value (to the extent that, within a religious context, any value can be independent).  It utterly rejects, for instance, the perception of the study of Gemara as pseudo-philosophy; and, as Rav Haym Volozhiner so vigorously contended, even cavils at reducing Talmud Torah to the instrumental role of inducing religious experience or commitment.  Our faith in Torah, all Torah, properly studied, as illuminating and ennobling is, of course, profound and abiding; and the emphasis upon relating it to the whole of the spiritual life is beyond question.  Yet, Torah study cannot be animated solely by such ancillary concerns, however worthwhile - not if we wish to be included among "those who know Your name and who study Your Torah for its own sake."  That appellation is reserved for those for whom the bare fact that a text or an idea is devar Hashem is reason enough for its study.

            Moving from the personal to the public arena, we encounter two additional themes in the berakha recited at the conclusion of keriat ha-Torah.  The phrase, "ve-chayei olam nata be-tokheinu" - "And eternal life He has implanted within us," has been diversely interpreted.  The Tur (O.H. 139) sees it in juxtaposition to the preceding phrase ("Who gave us the Torah of truth") and explains:

"To wit: 'The Torah of truth' refers to the written Torah, and, 'And eternal life He has implanted within us,' to the oral Torah, as it is written (Kohelet 12:11), 'The words of the wise are as goads and as nails well fastened.'"

The conclusion, alludes to a Gemara in Hagiga (3b) which takes the word netu'im (=well fastened) in the literal sense of "planted," and, in this vein, amplifies the organic metaphor in order to expound the efflorescence and diversity of Torah:

"'Well planted:' just as a plant grows and increases, so the words of the Torah grow and increase.  'The masters of assemblies:' these are the disciples of the wise, who sit in manifold assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah, some pronouncing unclean and others pronouncing clean, some prohibiting and others permitting, some disqualifying and others declaring fit.  Should a man say: How in these circumstances shall I learn Torah?  Therefore the text says: 'All of them are given from one Shepherd'.  One God gave them; one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: 'And God spoke all these words.'"

            The organic element is endemic to the world of Torah she-be'al peh, generally, to which the Gemara and the Tur relate.  Unlike written Torah, clearly defined and wholly delimited, it is marked by growth and development.  These qualities are especially characteristic, however, of the yeshiva world, within which chiddush, the capacity for creative innovation, is held in such high regard.  The organic moment is doubly significant.  First, it lends a vitalistic cast to Torah learning, to be marked, ideally, by both verve and imagination.  Secondly, it deepens the basis of normative commitment by investing submission to the authority of Halakha with an open-ended character.  Historicists and Conservative ideologues champion development as a liberating factor, freeing an adapting present from the onerous shackles of a fossilized past.  Properly perceived, however, it is no less an obligating factor, imposing, in effect, boundless commitment.  As such, it is, most aptly, the vehicle of the covenantal relation of na'asseh ve-nishma, "We shall implement and heed."  As the Bet Halevi noted (Bet Halevi al Derush U-mili De-aggadta, Jerusalem, 5707, p. 121; see also p. 130):

"But Torah she-be'al peh has no bound or limit, and in every generation new laws and halakhot are innovated...  And it is with this intention that Israel then said, Na'asseh ve-nishma, as the import of na'asseh is that they took upon themselves to do all that they were told then, while ve-nishma refers to the future, that they took upon themselves to heed, further, the words of the sages of every generation, all that would be discovered subsequently as Torah novellae."

            The Ravya (I:181, sec. 168) interprets "ve-chayei olam nata be-tokheinu" in a wholly different vein.  He cites and rejects the view that it refers to Torah, and presents, alternatively, his own explanation.  Birkot ha-Torah, he suggests, relate to both Torah and other themes:

"Part refers to Torah and part refers to Israel and other mitzvot, such as, 'And eternal life He has implanted within us,' which refers to other mitzvot and to gemilut chasadim, in which Jews are always engaged, and we thank God for both."

            The import of the passage is striking.  However, an obvious question arises.  Granted that "other mitzvot and gemilut chasadim" are important, but why are they cited in a berakha over Torah?  Oughtn't Chazal rather have instituted a birkat ha-chesed, to be recited prior to visiting the sick or attending a funeral?  The answer is equally obvious.  Torah which is divorced from other mitzvot, which is devoid of meaningful relation to chesed, is inherently flawed.  Torah is, optimally, Torat chesed, an organic whole within which both orders are integrally fused.  Hence, the component of gemilut chasadim is included in birkat ha-Torah, under the rubric of chayyei olam.

            In conclusion, quite apart from their content, a word about the role which Chazal ascribed to birkot ha-Torah.  With reference to the pesukim in Yirmeyahu (9:11-12),

"Who is the wise man, that he may understand this, and who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord hath spoken, that he may declare it?  Wherefore is the land perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passeth through it?  And the Lord saith: Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not hearkened to my voice, neither walked thereto,"

Rav comments (Nedarim 81a): "Are not 'they have forsaken my law' and 'they have not hearkened to my voice' the same?  Rav states: It means that they did not say a berakha prior to learning Torah.'"

            To learn Torah without a preceding berakha does not merely constitute failure to fulfill a particular halakha.  It entails - and here, we return to our point of departure - missing the essence of Torah itself.  Learning without praise, thanksgiving, and petitionary aspiration is learning which fails to realize the joy and the marvel, the awe and the wonder, of Talmud Torah.  To learn with insouciance or indifference, or even with presumed dispassionate objectivity grounded in intellectual curiosity, is to reduce devar Hashem to an academic discipline.  Hence, as the Rav stressed (see his Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mori z"l. [Jerusalem, 5745], pp. 1-2), on the basis of the Rambam, talmud Torah sans berakhot does not merely miss out on a mitzva; it constitutes a positive violation.  In effect, such learning disregards, perhaps even implicitly denies, the unique character of Torah; small wonder, then, that there is an issur.

            This theme is complemented by an elaboration of the Maharal (see the introduction to Tiferet Israel; and cf. Turei Zahav, O.H. 47:1).  Addressing himself to the Gemara in Nedarim, he asks how is it conceivable that Rav could have interpreted the pasuk as ascribing the decimation of the land to the failure to recite birkot ha-Torah when neviim repeatedly saw it as caused by the most heinous of sins - idolatry, fornication, and murder?  He responds that, unquestionably, it was over these that the country was punished.  Rav, however, sought to confront another question: If, as Chazal assumed, people then engaged in Torah study, how could they have become so degenerate and dissolute?  Where was the illuminating and ennobling influence of Torah study - "For its light stimulates regeneration?"  With respect to this query, Rav responds that those who fail to utter birkot ha-Torah, who, therefore, implicitly approach learning without tremulous awe, relegating confrontation with the divine word to the exercise of rational inquiry, are impervious to that light.  Only when Torah is perceived as it is and related to as such, does genuine and pervasive spiritual illumination occur.

            By the same token, this sense of Torah's uniqueness is the spirit in which we, who do recite birkot ha-Torah - suffused by the duty to persist, brimming with prayerful anticipation of joy, filled with humble gratitude for having been singled out as the chosen recipients of the Ribbono Shel Olam's own Torah, - approach it.  Above all, overwhelmed by the sheer marvel.  In the words of the Tur (O.H. 47; the final phrase alludes to Mishlei 8:30):

"And, in his berakha, one should think of the convocation at Sinai, that He chose us from among all the nations; brought us near to Mount Sinai and made us to hear His words out of the fire, and gave us His sacred Torah which is the base of our lives - His precious vessel with which He reveled daily."

            It is with this intent, with an eye to these aspirations, out of souls yearning for their realization, that a yeshiva is conceived.  Beyond conception lies fulfillment; beyond the dream, implementation.  Toward these, we labor with might and main.  For siyata di-shemaya, for divine assistance in their achievement, we bless and pray, with humility and hope.

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