The Torah Life

Based on a Shiur Daas delivered by the Rosh Yeshiva HaRav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l

In the liturgical thanksgiving which we recite on Chanukah, it states: “When the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of your will.” Ordinarily, the word חק, “statute,” connotes a specific type of commandment whose reason is unknown. The usage of this term here indicates that in all the commandments of the Torah, even those which seem logical and readily understandable, there exists an element of statute. It is improper to approach any of the commandments, Divinely given as they are, from the perspective of the human intellect. All commandments should be observed because they constitute an expression of G-d's will.

The essence of Greek culture was the primacy it placed upon human intellect. Secular humanism, a direct derivative of Greek culture, is based on the concept of the freedom and infinite power of human intelligence. A corollary of this belief is that the human mind cannot be subservient to that which it cannot comprehend. One who studies in the academies of secular humanism must, by definition, be affected by this philosophy, which is the very antithesis of the spirit of the Torah.

That liturgy continues: “You in Your great mercy have fought their cause.” This wording indicates that this conflict was not merely a military struggle, but a spiritual Kulturkampf, a clash of opposing civilizations. The intent of the decrees issued by the Grecian empire was to spiritually vanquish the Jewish nation. G-d's deliverance of “strong into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few” was the revealed salvation, but within this revealed salvation there existed a concealed spiritual salvation of “the impure into the hands of the pure; the wicked into the hands of the righteous; and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah.” This spiritual salvation represented the victory of the luminance of the Torah over the Greek culture. The diligence of the students is mentioned, because only when Torah is studied with diligence and toil, can one experience the eternal “statute” nature of the Torah. Indeed, our Sages have said that the verse, “If you go in My statutes,” refers to the laborious study of Torah.

When contemplating the zealotry of the Maccabes, it is instructive to go back to the original zealot, Phineas, who avenged HaShem's vengeance, and sanctified G-d's name, and in the process, saved the nation from spiritual destruction. In doing so, he merited the eternal covenant of peace. Fundamental to the understanding of what he did, are the Scriptural words which preface his action, “And Phineas saw.” Although all the Israelites had seen what had transpired, Phineas was singular in that he saw that which had been done and he was reminded of the law which addresses those circumstances. He possessed that ability to see and perceive the events which he witnessed as the practical framework by which the letters and words of the Torah are to be actualized. One who cleaves to HaShem to such an extent, and has such a perception of the world, views zealotry, not as a form of extremism, but as part and parcel of life's normalcy. Otherwise, the “zealotry” is nothing more than unruly wildness. Indeed, the zealotry I was privileged to witness by the leaders of Telshe Yeshiva was precisely of such a nature—no fuss, no fanfare, no flying into a rage. Just matter-of-factly doing what had to be done to follow the Torah's dictates.

This character trait is an outgrowth of the Telshe philosophy, which sees a person as a microcosm of the entire universe, containing a myriad of forces and strengths within him. A person must first focus on being in control of himself. By exercising self-rulership, he then, by extension gains mastery over everything in the world. This approach places a great responsibility upon a person to live up to his potential, to attain greatness, and to strive evermore to develop all the variegated internal resources with which he was endowed. To accomplish all the above, however, it is critical that a person have a total and clear recognition as to the essence of life. With this knowledge, he will be motivated to acquire this life, and to grow exalted and upraised as the chosen creature. What is the Telshe approach to this issue? Let us elaborate upon the teachings of the Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch on this matter.

Scripture states, “No empty thing is it for you, for it is your life, and through this thing shall you prolong your days.” One must understand that the reference to Torah and its commandments as one's “life and the length of his days,” is not to be taken as a mere poetic expression, akin to a loving mother calling her dear child, “My life-soul.” As much as the mother loves her child, the stark reality is, that the child simply is not her “life.” However, Scripture does not employ poetic license, and thus we must understand, simply and clearly, that the Torah and its commandments are literally one's life and length of days. How so?

There are many forms and manifestations of life. Even a thing in the mineral world has a life, i.e., a force which binds all its molecules, and gives it cohesion. The life of the things which comprise the vegetative world is more easily discernible. The growth of a plant is a manifestation of that vegetative life; a plant that lacks that ability is said to have “died.” Although a dead plant still has the qualities of those things in the mineral world, it is called “dead” because it lacks the specific life unique to it. Above the aforementioned, are those in the animal kingdom, whose life consists of perception by means of the five senses. In a category of life all of its own, is the human being, who possess intellect, speech, and the other qualities with which human beings were endowed. When a human being, G-d forbid, loses those qualities which make him unique, he is said to be “dead,” and exists only in vegetative form.

Above and beyond all the other forms of life we have mentioned, is the life of a Jew who fulfills the mandate of the Torah and its commandments, for in doing so, he attains the greatest level of life. Each of these various types of life is fundamentally different than the others. It is incorrect to say, for example, that plants have the same life of those things in the mineral world, but have an additional feature of growth. Rather, all the functions of those things in the vegetative kingdom, even those which parallel those that are found in the mineral kingdom, have their source in the vegetative life. Likewise, all the functions of those things in the animal kingdom, even those which parallel those found in the vegetative kingdom, have their source in the life specific to animals. The same holds true for the human life. This concept is implicit in that which Ramban writes: “The eating of a human being is not identical to the eating of an animal etc.”

It follows, then, that a Jew who observes the Torah and its commandments, is not merely a human being who has attributes not shared by other human beings, but rather is in a category unto itself. His life source is rooted in the eternity of the Torah, and all his various life functions are derived from that everlasting source. According to the above, the following distinction emerges. All the other forms of life are finite and bounded. The butterfly lives for but one day, a human being for seventy or eighty years. The life of a Torah-Jew however, is rooted in the eternal, and as such his life is infinite. It is difficult for us corporeal beings to fully understand this concept, and therefore we are accustomed to apply a material yardstick to all facets of our life. The truth is, however, that the life of a Torah Jew is rooted in the eternal, transcending all material limitations.

According to this, we have a window of understanding into the following statement of the Sages: Scripture states, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all.” This teaches that the righteous in their death are called living; but the wicked even in their living days are called dead. Now, it is understandable that this verse indicates that when the wicked is still alive, he is nonetheless spoken of as being dead. However, how do we derive from this verse that the righteous are called living even after they die? However, as explained previously, since the life of the righteous is rooted in the eternal, and even their life upon this earth is eternal in nature, then it stands to reason that such a life cannot be terminated by death, for death and mortality apply only to physical life. By the same token that the wicked during their lifetimes are not considered alive, for they are disconnected from the life source of the eternal Torah, the righteous are considered living even after their death for they are still connected to that life source.

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) states, “What is the meaning of that which is written, ‘You have made man like the fish of the sea?’ To teach you that just as the fish of the sea, as soon as they are lifted unto dry ground they perish, so it is with people, as soon as they separate themselves from the words of the Torah and the commandments they perish.” This analogy must be explained as follows: Just as a fish, once it its removed from the water, its life source, even though it may thrash and flail about, it is no longer deemed to be alive. So too, a person who is removed from the life source of the Torah, although seemingly alive and functioning, is in essence no longer living. All signs of life that he exhibits are illusory, and are nothing more than the death throes of a fish on land. Indeed, this is Scripture's intent in stating, And you who cleave to HaShem your G-d, are alive all of you this day. This indicates that even your life today, in the present, is only a function of that which you cleave to HaShem. An existence devoid of that closeness to HaShem cannot be called “life.”

Were one to ask, of what practical importance is it that the eternal life may be lived in this world, and is not strictly the province of the World-To-Come? What would be lost if one labored under the misconception that the eternal reward is granted only posthumously? These questions, however, are not rooted in wisdom. Firstly, the awareness of any correct information, as part of a general recognition of truth, is important to a person, as stated in Scripture, “The advantage of wisdom over idiocy is the advantage of light over darkness.” Secondly, the knowledge of this particular piece of information is of great benefit to a person for it pertains to all his matters and affairs in this world. Our Holy Sages have taught us, “The World-To-Come resembles an inner chamber; this world resembles a lobby; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the inner chamber.” How are we to understand the nature of this preparation in the antechamber? Does it have no intrinsic value whatsoever? No! By grooming oneself properly before entering the royal chamber, a person, so to speak, has already left the mundane, and has entered into a more refined and sublime existence, one which will reach its climax when he actually crosses over into the king’s chamber, and is granted a royal audience. Thus, the “preparation” itself constitutes part-and-parcel of his reward. The World of Eternity has relevance for a person only to the extent that he has already entered it in this present world as he readies himself for the World-To-Come. The existence of a person in this world can only be called “life” if it constitutes a preparation for the World-To-Come. The essence of that “preparation,” as explained previously, is a conduit into the rarefied life in the World-To-Come.

This information has the ability to inspire a person to greater and more elevated aspirations, knowing that here in this world he could acquire eternal life with every good deed which he performs. Any positive act, then constitutes another link in an eternal chain. By knowing that here and now he acquires eternal bliss, a person gains a totally different perspective on the Torah and its commandments. A person must be cognizant, that through the Torah he learns and the commandments that he performs, he merits life immediately in this world, and does not have to wait for an otherworldly reward.

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 19b) relates that R’ Alexandri would announce, “Who wants life? Who wants life?” Everyone gathered together to hear his message. He then recited the following verses, “Who is the man who desires life?...Guard your tongue from evil.” What was R’ Alexandri telling his audience that they didn't know already? All he did was read them Scriptural verses, with which they were surely already familiar! His approach was novel, however, for he was hawking life in the here-and-now. By citing these verses he was impressing upon his audience that true life in the present exists only inasmuch as a person engages in Torah-study and avoids evil speech.

The knowledge of this information mandates that we not satisfy ourselves with a bare minimum in spiritual matters, just as, by nature, we do not do so in our material affairs. It does not suffice if we learn Torah merely eight hours a day, or that we observe the designated study-times. Not by any means! We should continually push ourselves to ever great spiritual accomplishments. Since our life is defined by its spiritual content, is there then any limit possible to that which we should desire to accomplish?! If we honestly believe that the Torah and its commandments constitute our true life, then who is the fool who would venture to say, “I don't need longevity. A minimum of life suffices for me!”

Based on this knowledge, we must experience an obligation to be involved in the Torah and its commandments even during the breaks in the Yeshiva schedule. Thank G-d, we have attained Torah and the fear of G-d, and many of the students have exhibited an excellent development in the knowledge and understanding of the Holy Torah. With the coming of the intersession, there exists the danger, G-d forbid, that spiritual ascent will be truncated, and that the gains that we have already accomplished might be voided. I acknowledge that there is a need, for a person to rest and rejuvenate. But, G-d forbid, that one take a vacation from the Torah and its commandments, for in doing so, one is removing himself from life itself. Is it conceivable, that a person, in his quest for rest and relaxation, would seek to sever his connection to life itself? Surely not! For it is, relaxation that he seeks and not, G-d forbid, death.

In addition to the personal reckoning which we must make, to fulfill an obligation to ourselves, we have the awesome responsibility of making an extended reckoning vis-a-vis the greater community. One who cleaves to the Torah and its commandments, lives not only for himself, but infuses life into the entire Jewish nation. Through the luminance of one's Torah, an entire generation lives; by separating from the Torah, he causes evil for himself and for the entire generation. Many years ago, the great Gaon Rabbi Azriel Rabinowitz, zt"l showed us a comment of Maharsha to Tractate Shabbos 119b. There, the Sages enumerated a number of sins which brought about the destruction of the Holy Temple, among them the fact that schoolchildren neglected the study of Torah. Maharsha writes: “Most of the sins, indeed practically all of them, exist in our times…The neglect of Torah-education by schoolchildren is found in every community. Even the older students waste most of the days of their intersession, idling away their time by walking around on the streets.” If this held true in the times of Maharsha (c. 1600), then can we imagine the sorry state of affairs in our contemporary times! How awesome is this matter, and who will be able to bear it?

Therefore each one of us is obligated to establish a daily schedule during our vacation time, that will serve as the framework for the continuation of our Torah-study in the Yeshiva. One must daven daily with a minyan, and designate times for Torah-study. This regimen will serve as the life-source for one's service of Hashem and in this manner, the breaks in the Yeshiva schedule will not serve as interruptions 'in our spiritual ascent, but rather as links in a multiyear chain of Torah-study and mitzvah-observance. In this vein, it is worthwhile to mention a wondrous thought of Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch regarding R' Akiva, who returned home after twelve years of Torah-study, and upon hearing his wife saying that she would be supportive of her husband learning Torah for yet another twelve years, he promptly turned around, and returned to Yeshiva for another twelve year stint. Surely common human decency dictates that R’ Akiva, standing at the threshold of his house, should have entered, greeted his wife, and only then returned to the study hall. The lesson to be derived from this incident, concluded Rabbi Bloch, is that when it comes to Torah-study, two times twelve does not equal twenty-four.

Every student of the Yeshiva and every Torah-Jew must draw strength and inspiration from the Festival of Chanukah, to dedicate themselves to the toil of learning Torah with great diligence, so as to be numbered amongst those “who diligently study the Torah.” One must assiduously avoid the deathtraps of the various “wanton ones,” and flee from the allures of lessening our Torah-diligence during these special days. There can be no greater expression of our thanksgiving for the Chanukah miracle than the toil of Torah-study which results in our enhanced cognizance of the Divine will inherent in each of the Torah's commandments. We have set forth a very serious problem—there is but one solution before us: “And you shall choose life.” By going upon this path of life, may G-d award us the merit of beholding His light of redemption and salvation.