Shiur #14: The Blessing Over Torah As A Key To Its Meaning

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


I.              THe Torah as an architectural plan for the world


In this shiur, we shall continue to clarify Rav Kook's understanding of Torah study in general and the virtue of Torah lishmah in particular. Rav Kook introduced the concepts "life of life" or "the Divine soul of the perfect world," ideas which he saw as “flowing” from Torah, and which reflect a deepened perception of it beyond cognitively-apprehended laws and values. How ought one to classify these categories?


On the one hand, they could be seen as denoting ideas belonging to the realm of abstract thought, but if we stick to Rav Kook's formulation, we understand them as a "soul" that is concealed within Torah, and we find ourselves in the world of phenomena. It stands to reason, however, that these are two sides of the same coin. In the kabbalistic outlook of thinkers like Rav Kook,[1] the dividing line between "idea" and "phenomenon" is not sharp, because abstract concepts are the building blocks of the real world, and also active forces that continue to drive it. In our case, then, we may thus speak on two planes. On the plane of values and principles, Torah would be the value of absolute good that was revealed in the creation of the world. On the plane of concrete reality, we can say that the aspiration to fully realize this value is the Torah's soul, and consequently also the soul of the universe.


This very idea - that it is possible to speak of an abstract or inner essence of the Torah – has an ancient midrashic anchor. Midrash Bereishit Rabba opens with a rabbinic tradition that reflects this approach:


It is the way of the world that when a king of flesh and blood builds a palace, he does not build it on his own, but according to a builder. And the builder does not build it on his own, but rather he has before him plans and notebooks, to know how to arrange the rooms and how to arrange the doors. In similar fashion, the Holy One, blessed be He, looked into the Torah and created the world, and the Torah says: "Bereishit God created" (Bereishit 1:1), and "reishit" [here] refers to the Torah, as it says: "The Lord created me as the beginning (reishit) of His way" (Mishlei 8:22).


            We are familiar with the Torah as a collection of Divine directives how to conduct our lives, but here in this midrash it is portrayed as the plan that God had before Him when He created the world. In the spirit of what was said above, we can say that the midrash relates to a more abstract or inner dimension of the Torah. In any event, the midrash invites questioning. Beyond the novelty of defining Torah as some kind of an architectural plan, how can this idea be reconciled with the manifest and traditional role of the Torah?


            Rav Kook's interpretation clarifies the combination. The Torah's manifest stratum, which commands man to strive for a proper life, reflects its inner essence as "the soul of the perfect world." God's plan was not fully realized at the time of the creation, but the Torah's inner spirit continues to push and drive the world toward perfection and completion.


II.            "Holy wisdom" – the Torah's influence on the learner


The fundamental characteristic that Rav Kook identifies in his grand vision of the concept of "Torah" is wisdom as vitality. Let us remember that Rav Chayim of Volozhin wrote that the study of Torah plants humility in man and brings him to repentance. Rav Kook explains this phenomenon in accordance with the categories that we have seen here:


The wisdom of the sacred is superior to all other wisdom in that it impacts upon the will and the emotional state of its students, drawing them near to the very majesty which it itself contains. This is not the case with all the worldly disciplines, which while they portray lofty and sublime matters, do not have this activating quality, to draw the essential self of he who studies them to their value. And the truth is that they do not relate whatsoever to the rest of a person's faculties, apart from his intellectual faculty.


The reason for this is that all matters of the sacred come from the source of the life of life, from the foundation of life that gives existence to everything. All of the sanctified content has the power to generate infinite creations, to establish the heavens and found the earth, and, it goes without saying, to impress a new and salient form on the soul of the student. None of the mundane sciences have this power, because they do not innovate new things on their own, but rather they portray and present that which already exists so that it can be seen intellectually. Hence, they can also not turn the learner into a new being, uproot him from his negative traits, and place him in a state of new reality, that is pure and alive in the light of true life that stands forever. (Orot ha-Kodesh, 1)[2]


            The Torah is designated here as "wisdom of the sacred," an expression that invites Rav Kook’s comparison between the Torah and other bodies of knowledge. What distinguishes sacred wisdom is it active and dynamic vitality, which doesn't allow the student to remain in his previous state. Its entire essence is creation, perfection, improvement and elevation. In practice, we must of course ask ourselves whether all Torah students are engaged in the study of "sacred wisdom" in this sense. In light of the passages that we saw in the previous shiur, we can say that Torah is wisdom of the sacred when it is studied lishmah. This is what was meant when we said – this level of lishmah involves contact (and let us add here, also emotional involvement) with the soul of the Torah.


III.           THe uniqueness of Rav Kook's understanding of TOrah Lishmah


Here we must go back to that fundamental idea which, in my view, lies at the heart of the issue of Torah lishmah. As opposed to the simple understanding, that Torah lishmah is primarily concerned with the objective of one's study, the truth is that Torah lishmah deals more with the student's emotional motivation and the direction that he gives to his intimate yearnings and existential-emotional world. Rav Kook's teachings provide us with a new angle that confirms this idea, while adding a new dimension. Now we see that not only does man have emotional motivations; the Torah itself, as a universal spiritual phenomenon, also has a soul. A person's inner awakening in the context of Torah lishmah links him with the cosmic vitality that inheres in the driving momentum and “desire” of Torah itself.


Rav Kook's explanations differ from those of the Nefesh ha-Chayim (despite the fact that Rav Kook was undoubtedly greatly influenced by it). Rav Chayim wanted to "excite hearts" with his glowing words about Torah's exalted stature in the hierarchy of the worlds: the Torah is high and elevated, it rests at the peak of the universe, and from there its influence penetrates down to all levels. This description is quasi-"geographic." True, the worlds about which Rav Chayim speaks are non-physical, and are not bounded by the material dimensions known to us. But, nevertheless, he portrays the Torah's superiority as flowing, as it were, from its lofty "position" in that spiritual hierarchy. On the other hand, the Torah's superiority in Rav Kook's eyes lies in its vitality; this too is a kind of loftiness, but it is a loftiness that is not alien or removed from man's personal experience.


This understanding stands out not only in comparison to the Nefesh ha-Chayim, but also in its basic novelty regarding Torah lishmah in general, and particularly our understanding as to the way that it is engendered. Thus far the question has always been: what is the grand vision of Torah that is meant to arouse the existential identification of the learner? The assumption was that a person must contemplate, appreciate and consider, and that this process of rational judgment will give rise to a deeper connection: be it to the challenge of actualizing the Torah in practice, or to the challenge of the study itself. The excitement and dedication flowing from this contemplation has an ideological component. The emotions are aroused by way of a mechanism that is reminiscent of the process of loving God as described by the Rambam.[3]


In contrast, according to Rav Kook, we are not dealing here only with a grand vision, that arouses the amazement of the person by way of its reality. For him, "the external principle" to which a person connects himself is itself vital streaming, which is captured mainly by way of the intuitive senses, and not the intellect. The insight that a person acquires from his own inner vitality, from the aspiration to constantly improve and grow, and from one’s inner identification and longing for kedusha, allows him "to see" that this excitement is part of the stream of beneficence that exists in everything and is implanted in the roots of the universe (a universe that was created, according to the midrash cited above, in accordance with the Torah's plan). This sight enriches his inner feeling, directs it, and arouses a person to cleave to the Torah.


IV.          Rav Kook's commentary on Birkot ha-Torah


            Bringing this process out of the realm of the semi-poetic and into our world of experience is the ineluctable challenge that awaits us. Yet before taking it up, I wish at this point to study another excerpt in which Rav Kook discusses the fundamental idea. We shall study sections of Rav Kook's explanation of birkat ha-Torah, the blessing recited over the Torah, taken from his commentary to the siddur, "Olat Re'iya." Here we will further examine the relationship between halakhic-practical study and the "living spirit" that constitutes the inner pulse of the Torah.


            In the first section, Rav Kook explains the wording of the blessing, "la'asok be-divrei Torah," "to occupy oneself in words of Torah." This formulation gives rise to a fascinating question – why doesn't the blessing read: "to learn ("lilmod") Torah”?


The Divine imperative with respect to our connection to the Torah is beyond mere study and understanding, the likes of which we find in all other disciplines. For this imperative comes from the true life, which is the very essence of the Torah. Through our occupation with the words of the Torah we have a connection to the source of life. This is far superior to any value of study, which would be reflected merely through the connection effected by knowledge and cognition. These may only cause some spiritual light to shine on the soul occupied with that knowledge. But they cannot bequeath the quality of life from its source, which comes only through the unique essence of the Torah, “the divine Torah that is perfect and refreshes the soul.”[4] This blesses man with the quality of spiritual contact between his soul and the flow of true life, which rests in the unique essence of the Torah, with which and through which anyone occupied with the Torah is crowned. For this reason, the blessing is worded: "to occupy oneself in the words of the Torah."


            The mitzva of Torah study does not end with study; Rav Kook explicitly speaks of a connection to Torah that is above rational enlightenment. "The very essence of the Torah" is defined as "the source of life." Note that the passage mentions the "spiritual contact" of which we have spoken in the past, that takes place in the soul of "anyone occupied with the Torah."


            The next section of the blessing includes the words "make the words of Your Torah pleasant in our mouths." What is the nature of this "pleasantness"? Does it refer to the pleasantness of cognitive achievement? Rav Kook rejects such an understanding. According to him, "pleasantness" is felt when there is harmony and completion in the essential sense. Here again we will encounter a further development of the ideas of Rav Chayim of Volozhin.


First of all, Rav Kook mentions the Nefesh ha-Chayim's teaching about the incomprehensible majesty of the Torah. Hence the question arises: Inasmuch as the Torah is so lofty and exalted, how is it supposed to be "pleasant" for us?


Indeed, lofty and exalted is the perfect, divine Torah. Its root transcends all of existence, and thus it can serve as the source that vitalizes all that is and the life of all souls. Consequently, and owing to the corporeality of physical objects, and the (physical) constriction of all the worlds, the words of the Torah cannot be suited to them, owing to their transcendence elevation over every living soul and every created world.


            The Torah's fountain of life stands in paradoxical relationship to the world, and this paradox as well is familiar to us from the writings of Rav Chayim of Volozhin. This is the contradiction between the immanence and the transcendence of the Torah: the Torah is present at and invigorates all levels of the created world, this being its immanent side. On the other hand, this source is also transcendent – so far away from us that an infinite gulf separates the universe, including us, from Him. In light of the transcendent dimension of the Torah, the difficulty becomes sharpened – how are our souls supposed to connect intimately to the Torah? But despite the anomaly, the Torah is in fact suited to us. And this truly a wonder:


Indeed, one of the wonders of He who is perfect in knowledge and of the light of His supernal goodness, is that He chooses the Torah and His people Israel, so that we as individuals are elevated by means of our inclusion in the collective Keneset Israel. (Israel’s) yearnings and aspirations, essence and inner desire, is the contents of the Torah. In this way the words of the Torah suit the feelings of our life. "Lord, our God, make the words of Your Torah pleasant in our mouth and in the mouth of Your people Israel."


Rav Kook's answer is that the soul of the Torah, which (as we have already seen) is an active force working to perfect the world, raises and elevates the soul of each individual until it becomes fit for this exalted connection, and then all the words of the Torah will be "pleasant in our mouth." "The house of Israel" is mentioned in the blessing, because this elevation takes place by means of Keneset Israel, the collective soul of the people of Israel. This kabbalistic concept is here presented as the repository of humanity’s inner striving for sanctity, which thus becomes accessible to the individual as well. 


            We see, then, that the blessing relates to the "pleasantness" of the connection between the individual's soul and the soul of the Torah in the living and essential sense, and not to the delight of intellectual edification.


            In the next section of Rav Kook's explanation, after we already expanded upon the living connection to "the soul of the Torah," we finally come to the matter of actual study. Rav Kook finds a wondrous dimension even in intellectual study, which seems to us a normal and perfectly familiar activity:


The otherness of Torah and the transcendence of its source above all creation ought to make it impossible for its Divine light to connect to the human soul as an object of study and cognition. But nevertheless the Torah is absorbed by Israel through inner understanding, and the method of it becoming known is through the intellectual study done by the people as a whole. This situation can come only from an uppermost Divine source. After the supernal wonder of suiting the Torah to the qualities of the soul of Israel, not only does it meet Israel in a manner of pleasantness,[5] but it is absorbed through learning, intelligible and explicated in the familiar modes of the Torah. This is one of the greatest miracles, beyond the natural order and its regular laws, which God has performed for His people, since the day He chose them as His people. It is for this wonder that we recite the blessing: "Blessed are You, O Lord, who teaches Torah to His people Israel."


            The very lowering of the Torah to learnable contents and the opening of a channel of reception and spiritual connection to the Torah by way of cognitive means are a miracle "above the natural order." And therefore, only God can "teach the Torah to His people Israel."


V.           Interim summary


According to Rav Kook, the formulation of the blessing recited over the Torah reflects the twofold connection between the people of Israel and the Torah, a connection that is paradoxical and arouses wonder. The fundamental core is the essential connection: the soul of the Torah, the soul of the perfection of the world, is, on the one hand, a supernal force, but on the other hand, it is an accessible and available force. Therefore, the deep and intimate connection between us and it is a miracle; but this is only the first miracle. The second miracle is the possibility of learning Torah – just learning, at first glance - in precisely the same manner that we study all other disciplines. Only that this simple study is a channel, that holds within it more than meets the eye.


In addition to its miraculousness, however, there are other dimensions of regular and practical Torah study that can be derived from Rav Kook’s idea of "the soul of the Torah."


We shall try to understand some of these other dimensions in the next shiur, and we shall also examine the ramifications and the more practical expressions of Rav Kook's outlook.


(Translated by David Strauss)






[1] The Maharal of Prague is another striking example.

[2] The emphases are found in the original.

[3] There he writes: "And what is the way that will lead to love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great name; even as David said: 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God' (Tehilim 42:3). And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil affrighted, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge. And so David said: 'When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers – what is man that You are mindful of Him?' (Tehillim 8:4-5)" (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2:2). Striking in the words of the Rambam is how emotional awakening results from cognitive study.

[4] Tehillim 19,8.

[5] This refers to the inner, existential identification with the aims of the Torah, which was discussed in the previous passage.