This coming Shabbat we will read in the synagogue the Torah section of Chukat which begins, "This is the law of the Torah."
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto asks: Why does the Torah section begin with "this is the law of the Torah”? This section is actually speaking about the commandment of the red heifer, so logically it should introduce it with “this is the law of the red heifer.” Why does it instead start "this is the law of the Torah”?
Rabbi Pinto replied: It is possible to explain this according to the words of Baal HaFla’ah (Panim Yafot, Nitzavim) on the verse (Deuteronomy 30:15) "Behold, I have set before you today life and good:" The Gemara (Brachot 5a) says that a person should provoke his good inclination against his evil inclination. if he defeats it, good, but if not, he should engage in Torah study. If he defeats it, good, but if not, he should read the Shema. If he defeats it, good, but if not, he should remember the day of his death.”
There is a famous question on this Gemara. The Gemara says that if a person wants to overcome his evil inclination, he should study Torah, and if that doesn’t help, he should read the Shema, and if that doesn’t help, he should remember the day of death. The commentators ask why not skip the whole process and immediately mention the day of death? Why is it necessary to first try Torah study and then recite the Shema and only if those things didn’t help, to mention the day of death?
A deep psychological truth lies herein, explained Rabbi Pinto. The Baal HaFla’ah says a person who overcomes the evil inclination by reminding himself of the day of death, may overcome it with a one-time knock-out, but it only has limited effect. At that moment he subdued his evil inclination, but he doesn't have the wherewithal to fortify himself further. He isn’t inspired to learn Torah. He isn’t inspired to do anything. He hasn’t changed himself.
When the evil instinct came to defeat him, he reminded it of the day of death and subdued him and succeeded that one time. But if the person studied Torah and overcame the evil inclination by the power of his Torah study, he gained the mental resilience to continue the never-ending battle against his evil inclination. It’s not just a one-time knock-out like when he was reminded of the day of death and momentarily overcame his urge without imbuing himself with resilience and empowerment for the future. The victory over the evil inclination through Torah study develops in the human soul the power to overcome the evil inclination in the future too.
The Gemara says first of all that a person should study Torah, because that is the most successful and long-term strategy. If that doesn’t help, he should recite the Shema, and if that doesn’t help, he should use the last ditch one-time knock-out strategy of remembering the day of death. This will help him prevail, but it won’t give him a lasting victory that builds greatness and resilience in his soul.
The commandment of the red heifer comes to purify a person from impurity acquired by contact with the dead, which recalls the less effective strategy of reminding him of the day of death. Instead of emphasizing the red heifer, the Torah section prefers to emphasize "this is the law of the Torah." First, a person should study Torah to overcome his evil inclination and purify his soul. But if he studied and it wasn’t enough, he should utilize the one-time knockout of a red heifer which is a reminder of the day of death.
However, to really become great, a person should follow the order that the Torah taught us - to study Torah, to read the Shema and only then to remember the day of death.
The Gemara says (Kiddushin 30b) that God created the evil inclination and created Torah as an antidote. The most effective way to defeat the evil inclination is through the holy Torah. If a person studies Torah, he overcomes the evil inclination with a powerful victory that creates in him greatness of soul. In contrast, if a person overcomes the evil inclination by remembering the day of death, he overcomes the evil inclination only momentarily and it will have no impact on the future. The evil inclination will return once more. With Torah study, a person subdues his evil inclination continuously and makes himself indomitable.
This article was written in cooperation with Shuva Israel