(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Two thousand years ago our Sages debated the relative merits of study vs practice and finally came to the conclusion that the study of Torah trumps all because it leads to proper practice.
While the conclusion makes sense, the question is what was the rationale behind the debate’s initial premise that Torah study should be of more importance. Why would the mere study of something be thought to be even more valuable than its practice? Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once explained that we don’t just believe that the Torah is from heaven, but that the Torah is heaven itself. The study of Torah is an interface with the divine, and like any meeting with God, one is never the same afterward.
While it is the aim of the study of other disciplines to be informational, it is the goal of Torah study to be transformational.
Torah isn’t just to be studied, it is to be experienced, and through that experience we are elevated and made more divine.
We literally become more Godlike.
One of the greatest compliments you can say about another Jew is that they are a walking Torah scroll. It means they are the human embodiment of all that the Torah comes to teach us.
But what is it exactly that the Torah is coming to teach? This week, over 50 million people watched the 89th Academy Awards, otherwise known as the Oscars.
When an Oscar winner is asked how he prepared for his winning role, he will often answer that he totally immersed himself in the part through method acting.
If someone wins for playing a homeless person, for example, he might answer that he left his $25 million mansion to live on the streets of Los Angeles for three months. During that time, he slept under bridges, suffering the cold, and ate out of garbage bins. He went into homeless shelters to live among the most unfortunate of people, learning their stories and experiencing homelessness. And only after truly living as a homeless person for so long, did he walk from the streets, unbathed, onto the set, ready to perform and earn his Academy Award.
This is why we study Torah and ultimately what Torah is coming to teach. We are taught that Judaism demands from us imitatio Dei, the imitation of God. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh; so, too, are we to work for six days and rest on the Sabbath. God visits the sick, clothes the naked and feeds the hungry; so, too, are we enjoined to act. “Be holy! For I am holy!” The mitzvot offer us 613 ways to act like God.
But while acting like God has its merits, the best way to imitate God is to get into His mind-set. The Torah allows us to get an insight into the mind of God.
While the mitzvot allow us to act like God, the study of Torah gives us the ability to think like God. Torah is, after all, a translation of the mind of God into human words and ideas.
This is what was meant by the Sages when they taught that God looked into the Torah and created the world. The Torah referred to here wasn’t some sort of blueprint a contractor consults. It was God’s mind; God consulted Himself and created the world.
The study of Torah is also the bridge between all generations of Jews. It is a sacred covenant shared by each and every single Jew throughout both time and space.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik used to describe his lectures as such. He would tell about how he would read a passage of Talmud to his students and introduce them to Hillel and Shammai, until Rashi would come and join the conversation, only to be interrupted by Maimonides walking into the room starting an argument, and through this “a symposium of generations comes into existence.” One need only visit an active beit midrash (Torah study hall) to see this happen. Jews in the 21st century quote rabbis who lived centuries ago using the present tense – not “Rabbi Akiva said” but “Rabbi Akiva says”! Soloveitchik once wrote: “When I sit to ‘learn’ I immediately find myself in the fellowship of the sages of tradition. The relationship is personal. Maimonides is at my right, Rabbeinu Tam at the left. Rashi sits at the head and explicates the text.
Rabbeinu Tam objects, the Rambam decides, the Ra’abad attacks. They are all in my small room, sitting around my table.”
This intimate feeling of closeness Soloveitchik felt would explain why a study partner is called havruta in Aramaic, coming from the word haver (friend). Both havruta and its Hebrew equivalent, haver, come from the root word which means “to connect.” It is the purpose of Torah study to connect. We connect with our fellow Jews, and we connect with God, and thus we connect with eternity. The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.