The Torah - An Elixir of Life or a Potion of Death

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


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Parashat nitzavim-vayelekh




The Torah - An Elixir of Life or a Potion of Death

Translated by Mark Ginsberg



"See, I set before you this day life and good, death and evil" (Devarim 30:15). Rashi explains that good and evil refer to good and evil actions, and that life and death here mean reward and punishment. Seforno explains that the good and the evil are the reward and punishment one receives in this world, whereas life and death refer to the rewards of the world-to-come. According to the Seforno, the Torah discusses human actions in the next verse - "For I command you this day…" (30:16).


Contrary to these explanations, R. Bachya ben Asher (a student of the Ramban) offers a different approach - life, good, death, and evil all refer to the Torah itself. The Torah itself can be life and good, yet it also can be death and evil, as it says, "Moreover, I gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live" (Yechezkel 20:25). Death and evil do not only apply to someone who does not learn Torah, but also refer to the individual who studies Torah in an improper manner. The gemara (Shabbat 31a) censures someone who learns Torah yet is lacking in yirat shamayim (fear of heaven), and it offers three parables to characterize such a person.


A.        This case is similar to someone who instructs his servant to bring up to the attic a measure of wheat. After the servant has completed the task, the master asks the servant if he mixed in to the wheat a preservative so that it would not spoil, and the servant responds that he did not. The master then tells him, "It would have been better had you not brought the wheat up to the attic in the first place."


B.         This person is similar to a custodian who received the keys to the inner rooms yet was not given the keys to the outer doors and thus cannot enter the inner rooms.


C.        He is similar to a person who built a gate to his courtyard despite the fact that he does not have a courtyard.


There are certain discrepancies between the different parables.


1)                  The third parable implies that the Torah is the gate to yirat shamayim, whereas the second parable reverses the order. It seems that both approaches are correct; each component contributes to the other.


2)                  From the third parable it emerges that Torah study without yira is a foolish act that has no benefit. However, the first parable implies that it is more than foolish; it has negative consequences, insofar as it is an attack upon the Torah. "It would have been better had you not brought up the wheat in the first place," and analogously, it would have been preferable had you not learned Torah at all. The Torah is profaned when it is placed in a vessel not suitable for it.


            The gemara in Yoma (72b) infers that the individual himself, and not the just the Torah, is also affected by such a situation: "Woe to the Torah scholars who learn Torah yet do not possess yirat shamayim."  The gemara continues: "Why does the Torah say, ‘This is the Torah that Moshe placed’? If one merits it, the Torah is an elixir of life; if one does not merit it, the Torah becomes a potion of death." The Gemara also asserts that someone who studies without yirat shamayim inherits two gehenoms (hells). Rashi (ad loc., s.v. tartei) explains that one gehenom is in the world-to-come, and the second gehenom is in this world, for they toiled in Torah study and did not enjoy the world. However, one may also explain that both gehenoms relate to the world-to-come. An ignoramus who did not study receives one gehenom for not studying, whereas one who studied Torah for naught, one who struggled and toiled in Torah yet did so without yirat shamayim, receives a double portion of gehenom - not only did he not fear God, but the Torah that he learned is also worthless.


There are two levels of study without yirat shamayim.  First, one may study Torah without intending to fulfill what he has learned.  Here there is a complete disjunction between the intellectual endeavor and the action to be carried out. The Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:2, column 3b) describes such a person: "It would have been better for him had his placenta overturned and he had never left the womb." 


Second, one may feel that Torah is just another academic discipline and not an integral part of avodat Hashem.  A person who learns Torah needs to ask himself not just how much to learn, but also why and how. Though Chazal did indeed value study which is not for its own sake - stating that "A person should always be involved in Torah and mitzvot, even if not for their own sake, for this will lead him eventually to perform them for their own sake" (Pesachim 50b) - they were referring to a person who had some appreciation of the importance of Torah study and strove to reach the level of "study for its own sake." However, for someone with no appreciation of the tremendous value of talmud Torah and with no existential need for Torah study, the Torah can be a potion of death.


Ramban, in his comments on the Sefer Ha-mitzvot (#5), explains the commandment of "worshipping God with all of your heart" as follows: "It is a positive commandment that all our worship of God Almighty should be with all of our hearts, meaning with complete and perfect intention, for His sake, and with no negative thoughts.  We should not perform the mitzvot without intent or with doubts as to their purposefulness…" Ramban emphasizes intent: we should not perform mitzvot for extraneous reasons, or without understanding their importance and benefit.


Rambam (Hilkhot Lulav 8:15) emphasizes another aspect in discussion of the verses, "Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything. You shall have to serve - in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything…" (Devarim 28:47-48). Rashi explains that the verse means that someone who did not worship God in times of joy and plenty will be forced to worship when lacking everything. However, Rambam explains that the verse refers to someone who did not worship God joyously. From here the Rambam concludes: "The joy a person should feel in fulfilling the commandments and in loving the God who has commanded them is a very great service; anyone who holds himself back from this joy is worthy of punishment." Again, even one who fulfills Torah and mitzvot may be punished if he lacks proper intention.


It is very important, especially during this season of repentance, that people who are fulfilling mitzvot and learning Torah should do so with the proper feeling and intention, that they understand the importance of fulfilling mitzvot, that they perform mitzvot for their own sake, and that they feel the existential need for Torah study.