Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Working Hard

Rav Mordechai Greenberg 

Midrash Tanchuma begins its comments on this week's Torah portion with the choice of Yisrael and the giving of the Torah. "And He gave us the Written Torah with hidden and ambiguous hints, which have been explained in the Oral Torah." The Midrash discusses the great value of the Oral Torah, which can only be obtained by one who "puts himself to death" over it. The Midrash adds that "The covenant which the Almighty made with Bnei Yisrael was in reference to the Oral Torah, as is written, 'For by these words I have made a covenant with you' [Shemot 34:27], that the Torah will not be forgotten by the people and by their offspring until the end of the generations... Therefore it was established that two sessions were required by Yisrael, for them to study by day and by night." The Midrash continues at length on the subject of the importance of the labor and the exertion to be expended in studying, "And whoever loves wealth and pleasure cannot study the Oral Torah, because its study requires great suffering and a lack of sleep." Commentators have noted about this statement that they are not sure exactly why this discussion is relevant at this point.

It is written, "Moshe commanded the Torah to us, a heritage for the community of Yaacov" [Devarim 33:4]. The Talmud Yerushalmi notes that "morashah" – a heritage – indicates a situation of doubt and weakness. And it asks, what is doubtful about the Torah? The answer is that when one begins to study the Torah there is indeed great doubt which is cleared up only after a great effort. But we may ask: Why was the Torah given in this way, leading to difficulty and rejection?

The Midrash teaches us that after the Two Tablets were shattered the Holy One, Blessed be He, taught Moshe the Torah and the Mishna, halacha and aggada, and everything that a scholar might want to ask in the future. Moshe wanted to write everything down, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, replied, "I wrote down for them the main elements of My Torah, and they treated them as alien material" [Hoshaya 8:12]. In the future the other nations would try to take possession of the Torah, as the Christians did. He therefore wrote down only the written parts, while the Oral Torah was not written on tablets but in the hearts of Yisrael, as is written, "I will write it on their hearts" [Yirmiyahu 31:32]. This means that Yisrael serves as the parchment on which the Torah is written. "He planted eternal life within us – this refers to the Oral Torah" [TUR]. In order for the Torah to be engraved on the heart, labor and great effort are needed, since whatever is achieved with little effort will easily be removed. And from that moment on, "Yisrael and the Torah is one and the same thing." [Zohar, volume 2, 90b].

"'Squeezing milk produces butter' [Mishlei 30:33]. In which people can the butter of Torah be found? It is in those who spit out the milk which they drank from their mother's breast." [Berachot 63b]. Rav Kook explains that there is an evil trait of pedagogues who want to lighten the burden of study, but that the result is that the material is not incorporated into the souls of the students. The "butter" of the Torah, the choicest part, is obtained when the students are disgusted by easily obtained knowledge and who desire to work hard and achieve the results by their own labors, like a growing child who becomes disgusted with nursing, even though mother's milk is good, easily digested, and easy to obtain.

It may be that the Tanchuma brings these ideas in the Torah portion of Noach since this is the first Shabbat of the winter session in the yeshivot. Many students would encounter difficulties in learning the Oral Torah, and they might ask why all this trouble was necessary. Why are there such difficult issues which make it hard for us to "bind" with the Gemarra? And the Midrash provides an answer: Without the proper effort, the Torah will not become firmly established in the souls of the individuals and the nation, and what comes easily can be lost with ease. And that is the essence of the covenant between Bnei Yisrael and G-d.