Monday, October 26, 2009

Maalos HaTorah

My best friend once pointed me to Maalos HaTorah by Avraham ben Shlomo Zalman (he was brothers with the Vilna Gaon.) The translator is Rabbi Elimelech Lepon. Though no one book could sum up my friend's Judaic viewpoint, this was the one he could conceivably call his hashkafa if pressed. I found the book to be very beautiful, although I do not think the best possible use of most people's time is to learn full-time in a kollel. It seems the author agrees, as he stresses the need to put these laws into practice as opposed to merely learning them. Since I cannot keep the book out of the library on indefinite leave, I thought it best to type up some excerpts so you might have a taste.


The Gaon's Answer

I heard from my brother, the Gaon, the following solution: We surely cannot say that the sum total of the mitzvos is 613 and no more; if so, we would be forced to say that from the portion of Bereishis until Bo only three mitzvos are found (Bereishis: procreation (1:28); circumcision (17:10); prohibition on eating the sciatic nerve (32:33)). There are also many portions in the Torah that do not mention any mitzvos, yet this is difficult to accept. In truth, every utterance in the Torah that was uttered by the mouth of the Holy One is a mitzvah in and of itself. The mitzvos are truly innumerable. They are so all-encompassing that anyone with deep discernment and an understanding heart can conduct himself according to the wisdom of Torah and mitzvos, in all details of his personal matters and conduct, whether large or small. He can fulfill countless mitzvos every second. In the Gemara and Midrash we find many cases of our sages conducting themselves completely in accord with the Torah. Thus said King David, "I have seen an end to every purpose, but Thy commandment is exceedingly vast" (Tehillim 119:96).

When the Gemara mention 613 mitzvos it is referring only to the roots, but these roots spread into many branches. Which commandments are roots and which are branches is not known to us, nor is it necessary to know this, for each mitzvah and word of Torah contains the entire Torah and all the mitzvos; their rules, details and particulars.

~pages 15-16

Torah as a Tree

Thus, the Torah is compared to a tree, as it says, "She is a tree of life for those who cling to her" (Mishlei 3:18). The root of a tree spreads into many branches. Each branch spreads into many stems, and each stem into many fruits. Each fruit has many seeds, each capable of producing an entire tree with roots, branches, stems, leaves, fruits and more seeds to produce another tree, and so on ad infinitum. Also, a branch can be planted to produce a total tree with all its parts, as the philosophers wrote. So it is with words of Torah and mitzvos: every single word and mitzvah contains all the mitzvos and all the words.

The Torah has a further advantage over a tree, for the leaves of trees fall and wither. But it is written in regard to the words of the Torah, "its leaf does not wither" (Tehillim 1:3); and, "its leaf is a remedy" (Yechezkel 47:12). Our sages explained this to mean, "[A remedy] to unbind the mouth" (Menachos 98a. To unbind the mouth is to know how to speak, as will be explained further on.)

~pages 16-17

Torah Study and Faithfulness

The Torah is called a woman, as it says, "Moshe commanded us Torah, an inheritance for the congregation of Yaakov" (Devarim 33:4). The Gemara tells us, "Don't read 'inheritance' (morashah) but rather 'betrothed woman' (me'orasah) (Berachos 57a; Pesachim 49b). The desires of this world are called 'a strange woman,' as it says, "The lips of a strange woman drip nectar;" (Mishlei 5:3), "To guard you from a strange woman" (Ibid, 7:5). And it says, "Go not near the door of her home...Make your way far from her" (Mishlei 5:8), "Avoid, do not pass by, turn and pass on;" (Ibid, 4:15), and, "Stay far from falsehood" (Shemos 23:7). Thus, [by being faithful to the Torah]one fulfills many mitzvos.

In connection to this, I heard an explanation from my brother, the Gaon, concerning the Gemara (Sanhedrin 99b), "He who has illicit relations with a woman lacks sense" (Mishlei 6:32); this alludes to the man who studies Torah at irregular intervals. What does one thing have to do with the other? The Gaon explained that since the Torah is called a woman (Yevamos 63b. Just as a wife is beloved to her husband, so the Torah is beloved to those that learn it- Maharsha), therefore, just as an adulterer only approaches his consort now and then, whereas his wife is exclusively his at all times, so one who studies only now and then does not make the Torah his exclusive companion.

~pages 41-42

Guarding One's Torah

Our sages state, (Avoda Zara 3b) "You have made man like the fish of the sea" (Habakuk 1:14). Just as fish immediately die upon being removed from the water, so Torah scholars immediately perish when divorced from the Torah. Thus it says, "Guard yourself lest you forget" (Devarim 8:11). Is it possible to imagine a person forgetting he is alive and thrusting a knife into his stomach or into his heart? Could he throw himself into a fire? It is in this way that we should understand the words, "guard yourself." You must literally guard yourself not to forget the Torah [you have learned], for this would cut off your very life.

-pages 55-56

Another explanation of, 'For if you diligently guard,': Perhaps you will say, 'I will learn only the serious matters and not bother with the lighter ones.' Therefore it says, (Devarim 32:47), "It is not an empty thing for you." That which you claim is empty is your very life! Perhaps you will say, "I have learned the halachos- it's enough for me!" Therefore it says (Devarim 11:22) '[For if you diligently guard] all these commandments which I command you, to dothem.' Learn midrash, halachos and aggados. Similarly, it says (Devarim 8:3), "For man does not live by bread alone"- this refers to the midrash, but by all that comes out of the mouth of the Lord shall man live- this refers to halachos and aggados.

-page 97

The Torah mentions, "as you sit," to teach that you sould behave properly in your home so that the members of your household learn from your example. This is the meaning of, "and you shall teach them to your children," as mentioned above. For one should see to it that his family also conduct themselves according to the Torah.

The Zohar quoted above also teaches that one should speak to his family gently, for dibur connotes gentle language, as the Gemara (Makkos 11a. See there two opposing uses of the word dibur= harsh and gentle) explains. In addition, one should speak cheerfully to them, for 'sitting' connotes peace, which is the opposite of sorrow. As it says (Yeshayahu 14:3), "And it shall come to pass on the day that the Lord shall give you peace from your sorrow."

-page 129

"The Torah is likened to fire, as it says (Devarim 33:2), 'from His right hand went forth a fiery law for them.' Who is able to touch fire? Only Israel, as it says (Devarim 4:4), 'And you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, every one of you, this day.' Rabbi Yochanan said, 'Whoever comes to engage in Torah study should regard himself as if he were standing in fire. The Torah that the Almighty gave to Moshe was written in black fire upon white fire. It was hewn from fire, engraved by fire and given from fire. AS it says, 'from His right hand went forth a fiery law for them.'"

It says in Yalkut Ha'azinu (Devarim 32:2), "My doctrine shall drip down (yaarof) as the rain, my speech shall flow as the dew.' If a Torah scholar is of good character, [the Torah's affect upon him is] compared to that of dew [i.e. beneficial and life giving.] But if [he does] not [behave in a manner befitting a Torah scholar,] it [the Torah] breaks his neck [arfehu [with as much forcefulness] as a rainstorm." (See Taanis 7a. 'Yaarof' can mean break the neck or annihilate- Rashi. Maharsha explains, 'turn your neck (oref) from him and go.' Thus the Gemara is understood: If the Torah scholar is a worthy person, relate to him as if he were 'dew,' i.e. seek him, always, as the dew is sought at all times. But if he is unworthy, turn away from him as if he were 'rain,' which is detrimental at times.)

My brother, the Gaon, explained the reason that Torah is likened to rain. The rain falls and nourishes all the grasses, both good and bad, yet the bad grasses grow better than the good. In the same way, Torah study develops the bad qualities that are in the heart of an improper scholar.

-pages 143-144

Also, the Gemara says (Yerushalmi Brachos 1:2), "Whoever learns Torah and does not carry it out in action would have been better off had his placenta overturned in the womb and he never came out to the air of this world." My brother, the Gaon, explained this according to the Gemara (Nida 30b) which states taht the child in the mother's womb "is taught the entire Torah. The moment he comes out into the world, an angel slaps him on the mouth [and causes him to forget all that he learned]." This needs explaining; what is the benefit in teaching a child if he is subsequently made to forget? Isn't it as if he never learned at all?

This can be understood according to the writings of the Alshich concerning what we say in our prayers, "Give us our portion in Your Torah," because all souls stood on Mt. Sinai, each receiving its portion of Torah. The Gemara says (Megilla 6b), "If someone says, 'I toiled [in Torah] and found,' - believe him." The word 'found' connotes the finding of one's lost object, for [whatever Torah one has learned] is part of his [original] portion. Now, if a child were not taught his portion of Torah in his mother's womb, how then could he find it even with much toil? And by the same token, if he were not made to forget what he had learned, what need would there be to toil at all? This [effortless attainment] would then negate the concept of reward and punishment. Therefore, a child is taught his portion in his mother's womb and this is called 'all the Torah,' which is to say, the Torah which pertains to his soul's allotted portion. When he comes out into the air of this world he is made to forget that Torah, and then, after much toil, he can find what he lost.

Now we can understand why one who learns Torah and doesn't put it into action would be beter off had he never come into the world. For the purpose of learning, alone, there is no need for man to enter this world. Hadn't he finished learning his portion of Torah while still in his mother's womb? The one who puts his learning into action, on the other hand, fulfills the intention of creation. Carrying out the Torah in action is the one thing that he could not possibly have done while still in his mother's womb, even though he learned it.

Similarly our sages said (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:4), "Cursed is he who does not fulfill the words of this Torah" (Devarim 27:26). Even one who learned and taught others but failed to do deeds of his own is included in the curse of, 'Cursed is he who does not fulfill [the words of this Torah].'

-pages 145-147

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