A Torah of Life, a Life of Torah

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



A Torah of Life, a Life of Torah


Adapted by Yitzchak Barth with Reuven Ziegler

Translated by Kaeren Fish





The expression "a Torah of life" (torat chayyim) is familiar to us from the prayer service: in the blessing "Ahava Rabba" we thank God for teaching us "chukkei chayyim, statutes of life," and in the "Sim Shalom" blessing we mention that He has given us a "Torah of life." There are several reasons why the Torah is referred to in this way.


Firstly, Torah comes from God, Who is the Source of life. The Torah first became manifest to us as the voice of the living God speaking from Mount Sinai to all of Bnei Yisrael. From that time onwards, as the Torah expanded into the Tanakh, Mishna, Gemara, and the writings of the great Torah sages of all generations, it remained essentially an interpretation and elaboration of the words of the living God.


Secondly, the Torah is called a "Torah of life" because it gives life and leads towards life, as we declare in the "Ahavat Olam" blessing in the evening service: "For they [the words of Torah] are our life and the length of our days." It is interesting to note that the blessings over the Torah actually point to a contrast between Torah and life: we bless God for having given us "THE TORAH of truth," and thereafter we say that He has "implanted within us eternal LIFE." However, most of the commentators explain that the expression "eternal life" (chayyei olam) parallels "the Torah of truth" which precedes it. In other words, the "Torah of truth" is itself "eternal life," for by engaging in Torah a person inherits eternal life. In Bava Metzia (33a) the same idea is formulated in halakhic terms: "One's father brought him into this world, but one's teacher – who imparts to him wisdom – brings one to the eternal world."


A third reason for the title "a Torah of life" is the vitality and ongoing development that characterize Torah. The Gemara (Chagiga 3b) draws a comparison in this regard between Torah and the plant kingdom: "Just as this plant is fertile and multiplies – so the words of Torah are fertile and multiply." Similarly, the final mishna in Bava Batra (175b) draws a parallel between the laws of damages and a flowing spring. Although a mikveh – like a flowing spring – purifies those who are ritually impure, a spring continually replenishes itself and never stands still, and therefore a spring is preferable to a standing mikveh (Mikvaot 1:7).


A final reason for the term "Torah of life" is that, in contrast to many other cultures which glorify death, the Torah occupies itself with life and sanctifies it. There is no death worship in Judaism. By delving into the tiniest details of all aspects of life, Halakha expresses its respect and appreciation for life in all its forms. The Torah addresses every part of a person's life and strives to sanctify all of it – including everything from creative life, through economic life, to the most everyday and material of daily activities. The message that arises from the Torah's occupation with these spheres is that every moment of life has significance, and can serve as the springboard to spiritual elevation. In the Jewish view, a live dog is preferable to a dead lion. So long as a person is alive, he may progress and sanctify himself. But when he is dead, he is removed from the world of sanctification and the fulfillment of Halakha.


Some people posit that a "Torah of life" is a Torah that shows considerations for the realities and necessities of life. According to this view, Torah sages should enact rabbinic rulings and interpret Halakha with a view towards addressing life's issues. In practice, this approach is popular mainly in specific areas of Halakha, in which the halakhic authorities have been especially lenient throughout the ages, out of consideration for the anguish of "chained women" (who are refused divorces by their husbands) and the suffering of the poor. This is not the place to treat this extensive subject in detail, but it should be emphasized that in this regard both extremes are wrong. On the one hand, there are those who insist that for every issue and in every instance there must be a halakhic solution, and the only problem preventing the release of all the "chained women" in the world is the timidity and laziness of the halakhic authorities. On the other hand, there are those who declare that the world of Halakha is self-contained, and no values need be taken into consideration other than purely halakhic ones. In my view, a true Torah sage must feel a dual obligation: towards Torah and towards Am Yisrael, and he must find the "golden mean" that balances the needs of these two factors.




In addition to speaking of a "Torah of life," we also speak of a "life of Torah." By this we mean a life that is based upon Torah on several different levels. Firstly, a "life of Torah" is built on the foundations of the Torah's commandments; it is the Torah that directs one's path. On the most basic level, we are speaking of a life guided by Halakha; a person makes his decisions and acts in accordance with the Torah's directives. But beyond this, a Jew who lives a life of Torah senses continually the weight of his or her responsibility as a commanded being. This constant awareness is unique to the Jewish religion and to the Jewish nation. There are many religions in which a person experiences God as the Creator, the Redeemer, the All-Powerful, the Source of kindness, but a Jew experiences God primarily as the Law-Giver and the One Who commands. A person who lives a life of Torah operates in accordance with this constant consciousness: as he or she wakes up in the morning, goes to work, eats, and even as when preparing to sleep. There is no activity – even the most seemingly mundane and insignificant – that does not consult the Shulchan Arukh for guidance.


But a life of Torah is more than just life founded upon halakhic awareness. Along with the commandments and instructions that comprise Halakha, Torah also includes a whole system of values that establish the proper relationship a person and God, the nation, the country, and the world in general. A true life of Torah is one in which the spirit of the Shulchan Arukh influences one beyond the dry instructions of Halakha. A person who lives a life of Torah understands that the Torah does more than just delimit parameters of the permissible and the forbidden. It influences our attitude towards the world of politics, economics, as well as spirituality.


A certain kippa-wearing professor once defined himself as an "observant secular Jew." This is certainly an extreme and exaggerated definition, but it does reflect the lifestyle of some people who call themselves "religious." In their view, Torah merely defines the playing field and establishes the "rules of the game" within which life is to be lived. They believe that one can think, feel and do as he pleases, as long as he does not break any of the technical rules. A true life of Torah is not a secular life that features the observance of the commandments; rather, it is a life in which Torah is the "game" itself, not just the framework of its rules. A person may be a shoemaker by profession, or a physicist, or an economist, but if Torah lives within him and the focus of his life is the aspiration to "sit in God's house all the days of my life" – then this person lives a life of Torah. Such a person does not feel that Torah limits or constricts his life; rather, he feels that it guides and inspires him.


In this sense, a life of Torah is not just life that is permissible according to Torah, but life with Torah at its center. In various contexts, the Gemara mentions the definition of a person "whose profession is Torah" (e.g. Shabbat 11a). Two of the greatest Rishonim – Ramah (Responsa, 248) and Rosh (Responsa, 15:8) - maintain that this definition refers to anyone whose aspiration is to "sit in God's house," and who runs his life on the basis of this aspiration. According to this definition, even a person who spends most of his day in a laboratory, for example, and only sits down to learn Torah at the end of the day – even this person may be considered one "whose profession is Torah." This status stems from his feeling that he engages in the other spheres because he needs to – for his own benefit or for that of society – but his main desire is to "dwell in God's house all the days of his life." Even if a person does not devote his entire day to Torah study, the main question is how he relates to his occupation and what he does with his free time.


What is common to all of these definitions is the negation of contrast or distinction between Torah and life. Torah and life – by their very definition – do not compete with one another. In its most perfect and ideal sense, "life" is defined as such specifically when it is a life of Torah, hinging on Torah values and on the aspiration towards involvement in Torah. Similarly, the ideal sense of "Torah" is a Torah of life in that it addresses life, promotes life, and rewards those who engage in it with eternal life. Any approach that attempts to negate these definitions and to draw a distinction between Torah and "true life" is foreign to servants of God. Only a view that identifies true life as a life of Torah can guide us on our spiritual path, on the road leading forever upward towards the House of God.


(This sicha was delivered in Summer 5761 [2001].)