12. Torah and Humility

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Ronnie Zeigler

LECTURE #11: Torah and Humility Part 1

based on a lecture by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt"l


[As a prelude to our discussion of catharsis of the intellect and of the religious experience, and as a continuation of our discussion of catharsis of the emotions, I am distributing a summary of an address by the Rav. This lecture was originally delivered in 1971, on the fourth Yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Tonya Soloveitchik zt"l. It has been adapted by Rav Ezra Bick. A shorter adaptation of this lecture appears in Shiurei Harav.]



We, the harbingers of Torah Judaism to the non-Torah Jewish community, are under strict scrutiny from a moral point of view. Precisely because we place the study of Torah at the center of our existence, the topic of humility is very relevant, as the explosion of knowledge in the modern world can and does result in human arrogance.


The WORD plays a unique role in the world-outlook of the Torah. Through the word, the boundless cosmos was created. Through the word, God revealed Himself to man in his role as a spiritual being and charged him with a singular task and assignment. God spoke to Avraham and then to Moshe, and urged them to establish a covenantal community, and later addressed Himself to that community and exhorted it to achieve the exalted heights of a "kingdom of priests and a holy people." First, order was imposed on the cosmos - this word is the source of truth, unalterability, identical with natural law. This was the order of Bereishit. When directed to man, the word imposes another order, not that of necessity and causality, but that of freedom and human dignity. When addressed to covenantal man, the word is the fountainhead of kedusha, sanctity. In short, the word creates three orders: necessity, the cosmic order; freedom, the human order; and kedusha, the covenantal order.


That the fountainhead of kedusha is the word of God is expressed in Halakha through the distinction between objects that are "gufan kadosh" (intrinsic, inherent and substantive holiness) and "tashmishei kedusha" (peripheral, incidental holiness, defined by the relationship with a sacred object). [A Torah scroll is gufan kadosh; the Torah covering is tashmishei kedusha.] The holiness of something which is gufan kadosh is an integral part of the object, whereas for tashmishei kedusha it is an external part of its relation, not part and parcel of its existence. The gemara states that the tefillin straps, no matter how indispensable they are, are only tashmishei kedusha; however the battim, the boxes in which the sacred texts are placed, are gufan kadosh. The reason is because "Shin shel tefillin halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai" (the letter "shin" embossed on the box is a law given to Moshe at Sinai). We see that the criterion of gufan kadosh is the presence of the word. The geometric configuration is somehow the source of kedusha. What this means is that the source of all kedusha is the Torah, the word of God. Wherever a letter appears, the Torah appears, and we find inherent sanctity. Where there is no letter, there is no intrinsic sanctity.


We have a written Torah and an oral Torah. The written Torah has its kedusha crystallized in the tangible, physical written word. What about the oral Torah? There the word is not objectified in a scriptical form. God, in His infinite wisdom, wanted the word to be interwoven in an abstract thought system, and not in a sign system alone, as in the written Torah. Can Torah she-be'al peh, the oral Torah, pass on kedusha? How does the unwritten word hallow, in the sense that Torah she-bikhtav sanctifies tefillin, mezuza, the Torah parchment, etc.? It would be folly to conclude that Torah she-be'al peh is inferior in this respect. The answer is that the oral Torah operates in a more subtle manner, transmitting sanctity through study and its relation to the mind of the student. Apparently, Torah study, aside from being an intellectual, educational endeavor, enlightening the student and providing him with the information needed to observe the law, is a redemptive cathartic process - it sanctifies the personality. It purges the mind of unworthy desires and irreverent thoughts, uncouth emotions and vulgar drives. The parchment of talmud Torah is the human mind, the human heart and personality. Indeed, a new dimension is added to human experience through the study of Torah: sanctity.


We have now discovered a new understanding of the term "writing" - it means not only the physical performance of drawing letters, but also the process of soul-arousal and heart-sensitizing. A scribe writes the Torah on parchment; the rebbe, the great teacher, writes the Torah she-be'al peh on the living mind, on the sensitive human heart. The old halakhic equation that every Jew is a sefer Torah (scroll) is, in this light, fully understandable. The living Jew is a sefer Torah of the Torah she-be'al peh.


The gemara (Sota 13b) states: "R. Eliezer HaGadol said: Over twelve square miles, the area of the camp of Israel (in the desert), a heavenly voice proclaimed: Moshe, the great scribe of Israel, has died." Although Moshe did indeed write a sefer Torah, the word "scribe" here does not refer to the mechanical art of writing. If it did, what would be the meaning of the adjective "great?" How would this phrase, "the great scribe of Israel," do justice to the greatness of Moshe Rabbeinu? Did Moshe have a beautiful handwriting? R. Eliezer the Great was referring to a different kind of script, to the art of writing God's living word on the passionate vibrant human heart, and impressing God's image on the receptive and questing human personality. Moshe was a scribe in the same way that Sefer Yetzira calls God a scribe: "The world was created through three things: sofer, sefer, sippur (scribe, book, and a story)." We have arrived at the equation: writing = creation = education. The teacher is God's collaborator in ma'aseh bereishit, in the creation of the world.


Kedusha is generated only by closeness to God. Who is holy? Whoever is touched by the Holy One, by God's hand. But, the question arises, how can man exist in the proximity of God? The gemara (Ketubot 111b) asks, "Is it possible for man to cleave to the Holy Presence? Is it not a 'fire devouring fire?'" The gemara answers that we should associate with talmidei chakhamim, with Torah scholars. How can one feel the hand of God resting on one's shoulder, feel the breath of eternity on his face? - through the Torah! Halakha does not favor mystical union, in which one's identity is negated. How can one get close to God and yet preserve the full sense of personality, of encounter? The answer is through knowledge, the study of Torah.


How does the study of Torah unite man with God, the human being with his Maker? How can it bring together finitude and infinity, temporal transience and eternity? The Rambam develops the idea of "achdut ha-maskil ve-hamuskal" (the unity of knower and known, the subject and the object of knowledge). This is found not only in the Moreh Nevuchim, but in the Yad Ha-chazaka as well (Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah, and, by implication, in Hilkhot Teshuva). The Sefer HaTanya writes about this doctrine of the Rambam that "all the sages of the Kabbala have agreed with him." I will not go into the philosophical explanation of this principle now, but we may immediately draw one conclusion. If the knower and the object known are merged into one, then two knowers whose minds are concentrated on the same object are also united. If a=c, and b=c, then a=b. People with common thoughts cannot long remain strangers, indifferent to each other. Wherever there is unity of thought, purpose and commitment, there is also personalistic unity. The Rambam (Commentary to Avot) concludes that the highest form of friendship is the unity of knowledge - "chaver le-dei'a." In a like manner, when man becomes completely absorbed in God's thought, in His revealed WORD, then he is indeed united with God; there is friendship between man and God. The Tanya writes, "When a man understands with his intellect, and comprehends and digests the infinite and inscrutable will of the Almighty, there is the most marvelous union between God and man." The link between man and God is thought. God is the originator of thought; man embraces it. This is the great bond uniting man and God, finitude with infinity.


But now there is a dilemma. Knowledge, all knowledge, is essentially esoteric; it is not equally available to all. What about the dull people, the sluggish people, the intellectually slow; are they to be denied the companionship of God? Religion cannot be esoteric. The experience of God, to hear His whisper, is a basic elementary right of every human being. Without religion there is no salvation, without faith there is no redemption, and everyone is entitled to salvation. But if the link between God and man is the intellectual Torah gesture, how can the experience of God's companionship be achieved by all?


There is another doctrine of unity - achdut ha-ohev ve-ha-ahuv (the unity of the lover and the beloved). To love means to share an identity, a common destiny. Now if the lover and the beloved are united, then two persons who are in love with a third party are also united. The love between a husband and wife is strengthened and deepened with the birth of a child. In fact, love in common is a stronger bond than thought in common; the link of hearts is stronger than that of minds. On the verse, "He shall cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh" (Bereishit 2:24), Rashi explains that the "one flesh," the unity, is realized by the creation of a child. The love of the couple, originally an erotic, selfish drive, changes into a more spiritual, exalted love through a shared creation, a common goal. Unqualified love of a child unites the parents, brings them closer to each other. Their love becomes more truthful, more intimate and sincere. Two people, father and mother, are welded together into one. All their concerns and aspirations are concentrated on a new center, which becomes the emotional bond linking both of them; indeed, it becomes the existential focus of their lives, about which everything revolves. Depressed by the absence of love from her husband, Leah responds to the birth of her first child by saying, "Now, my husband will love me." She hopes that a missing element in her relationship will be filled by the little baby.


God loves His word, crystallized in the Torah, as though it were His daughter. In Mishlei (the Book of Proverbs), the Torah is called the darling child with which God plays daily. "I shall be for Him a disciple, and I shall be an amusement every day, playing before Him all the time" (Mishlei 8:30). Man too can embrace Torah. Mishlei (2:3) calls Torah the mother of man - "Call understanding your mother" (Mishlei 2:3). We find the expression "baneha shel Torah" (children of Torah), which does not refer only to scholars. The relationship between us and Torah is that between a child and his mother. We identify with Torah, we cherish her, we are committed to her, like a little child who identifies with his mother and cannot distinguish between his own identity and hers. In this way, a bond is created between God and man: not only man who studies, but all those who love Torah and feel awed by her.


The Bach explains that the blessing we recite in the morning, "la'asok be-divrei Torah" (to engage in the words of the Torah), is more embracing than "lilmod Torah" (to learn Torah). The berakha, recited by all, including the great scholar, is not for the esoteric intellectual experience of Torah, but rather for the exoteric love of Torah and for the kedusha that results. The entire Jewish community is a Torah community, and hence a holy one, including both the aristocrat of mind and spirit, and the simple anonymous individual. "Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehillat Yaakov." The Torah is the inheritance of the entire community of Israel.


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