Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 26 June 2021 / 16 Tammuz 5781

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 11)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 11)
(Lailah Gifty Akita)

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are: honoring one’s parents; acts of kindness; early arrival at the study hall in the morning and the evening; hosting guests; visiting the sick; providing the wherewithal for a bride to marry; escorting the dead; praying with concentration; making peace between two people; and Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” (Tractate Shabbat 127a)

The tenth and final mitzvah listed here is studying Torah. “And Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” When I was a teenager, I was greatly troubled by this statement each time I recited it. To my adolescent mind, it seemed incomprehensible that our Sages — who were imbued with an otherworldly grasp of the human psyche — could possibly teach that the worth of learning Torah is equal to the sum totality of all of the other mitzvahs!How is it possible that a genuinely good person, who “just so happens” to be not yet religious, who sincerely cares about all those around them and can be relied upon at all times, is considered to be on the same level as someone who is a phenomenal Torah scholar but who “just so happens” to be short-tempered, nasty and difficult to tolerate. In my youthful indignation there was no question about which kind of person I would prefer to spend time with — and it was not the scholar! At some point, I was so vexed that I went to speak with my Rabbi. His insightful answer, laced with his customary sagacity, has remained with me ever since.

As with so many of their disarmingly simple lessons, our Sages are actually teaching us here a fundamental understanding about ourselves. In my experience, it seems that, generally, we have been created in such a way that we are intrinsically selfish. The first person we worry about is ourselves, and, after that, those in our immediate circle. Only afterwards, if we have the time and patience, will we begin to interest ourselves in the wellbeing of anyone else. But, as we have learned previously, the Torah demands of us to behave in a G-d-like manner to everyone and not to be self-absorbed. This mindset, however, entails going against our natural instincts, which is a very difficult thing to do.

Question: Where do we learn the techniques and acquire the ability to be able to ignore our innate predisposition to selfishness, so we can tend to the individual and communal needs of others?

Answer: In the Torah.

Every single component required to bring us to the understanding that we must think of others and assist them is found in the Torah. When we learn Torah, we are exposing ourselves to Hashem's blueprint for a successful sojourn in this world. Of course, just as with all blueprints, the plans must be transformed from the theoretical into the practical in order for them to make — and leave — an impression in this world. Otherwise, they remain as mere unfulfilled potential. They are exciting plans that never came to fruition. And this is, perhaps, the saddest prospect of all.

It is the Torah which guides us, and it is the Torah which instructs us how to allow ourselves to open our hearts to the needs of others. And it also teaches us how to then act on that awareness in order to fulfill G-d’s Will. Without learning Torah, the vast majority of us would not even have an inkling that we are obligated to interact with kindness to all those around us. Granted, there are certain individuals who are blessed with an innate goodness that makes it an absolute pleasure to be in their presence. But for the rest of us, we need the Torah to teach us that we, too, must be sympathetic and solicitous. To reach the point where we want to help others whenever we can.

In the timeless teachings of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yishmael states, “One who studies Torah in order to practice is given the means to study and to teach and to observe and to practice.” Rabbi Ovadiah from Bartenura (1445-1515) authored a magnificent commentary on the Mishna, one that is considered to be foundational for accurately understanding the Mishna. He explains that the phrase “in order to practice” means to perform acts of kindness. The true route to connecting to G-d in the fullest possible way is through learning His Torah and acting with thoughtfulness and sensitivity to all those around us.

And this is why our Sages teach us that learning Torah is the equivalent of all the other mitzvahs. The more Torah we learn, the greater is our awareness of our obligation to think of others. And the more Torah we learn, the greater is our ability to act with kindness to everyone. The raison d'etre of learning Torah is not simply to acquire huge amounts of knowledge. It is not to be able to dazzle everyone with our erudition. Rather, it is to make ourselves into better people than we were before. To become more thoughtful and gentler. To be empathetic and caring. To become better attuned to the needs of others, and try to attend to them as best we can. By doing so, we are emulating G-d. And this is what we are commanded to do.

However, one who learns Torah is not guaranteed to automatically become a paragon of beautiful character traits. Improvement requires both self-awareness and a great desire to want to become better. In addition, continuing hard “work” is necessary to make it happen. Unfortunately, it is possible for someone to become an extremely accomplished scholar, to be intimately familiar with the vastness of the Torah, and yet still be uncaring and oblivious to the needs of others. My Rabbi ended his reply with a stark pronouncement that has remained embedded in my consciousness: “Anyone who studies Torah and does not become a better person — every single word of Torah that they learned is flawed.”

The need to constantly fine-tune our character traits is so incredibly fundamental, which is why Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher points out that the greatest personalities in the Torah are not praised in the Torah for their wisdom or intelligence. Rather, they are praised by the Torah’s portrayal of their outstanding characteristics. The primary aspect of wisdom is to improve ourselves.

In closing, there is a charming passage in the Talmud (Yoma 86a) that reveals a profound dimension to everything we have just learned. The Torah states in Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love Hashem, your G-d.” The Sage Abaye teaches that this verse can be understood as telling us that the Name of G-d becomes beloved through our behavior. Abaye continues by saying that a person should learn Torah and serve Torah scholars. And that all of his business transactions should be performed faithfully, and his dealings with other people should be conducted in a pleasant manner. What do people say about someone like this? “Fortunate is this person who learned Torah. Fortunate are his parents (see Rabbeinu Chananel) who taught him Torah. Fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah. This person who learned Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how refined are his deeds. Regarding him, the Torah says in Isaiah 49:3: ‘He (G-d) said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, through whom I am glorified.’”

When we are exposed to such exceptional role models, we understand that their exemplary character traits are founded in the Torah. They serve as an incentive to us to learn yet more Torah in order to try emulating them to better ourselves. Such a person sanctifies G-d’s Name on a continual basis. And there really is no greater aspiration in this world than to enhance G-d’s Glory and Majesty, and to show all those around us — through our actions and our interactions — that we, too, reflect the Divine.

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