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לימוד תורה

Shabbat Matan Torah - an elixir of life or an elixir of death

The Parasha in our everyday life - Yitro 5782

Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - Rosh Yeshivat Hesder 'Meir Harel' Modi'in

Just as it is customary to call the Shabbat Parashat Beshalach - 'Shabbat Shira', it is customary to call the Shabbat Parashat Yitro - 'Shabbat Matan Torah'. Just as on 'Shabbat Shira' it is customary to engage in different and varied aspects of 'Shira', on 'Shabbat Matan Torah' it is customary to deal with various aspects of Torah study.

In the years before the Covid virus, we used to hold special conferences in preparation for this Shabbat, in which we dealt with the current meaning of "giving the Torah" in our Jewish lives. We dealt mainly with the importance of Torah study, for everyone, especially in mature age, and with the challenges of combining Torah study and 'a fixed Torah learning schedule' in a very demanding and challenging life.

Because of the shaky events of the last few weeks, we want to deal with a complex and paradoxical phenomenon related to the study of the Torah, which the Sages have already dealt with:

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, מַאי דִּכְתִיב: ״וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מֹשֶׁה״, זָכָה — נַעֲשֵׂית לוֹ סַם חַיִּים, לֹא זָכָה — נַעֲשֵׂית לוֹ סַם מִיתָה. וְהַיְינוּ דְּאָמַר רָבָא: דְּאוֹמֵן לַהּ — סַמָּא דְחַיָּיא, דְּלָא אוֹמֵן לַהּ — סַמָּא דְמוֹתָא.

"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: וְזֹ֖את הַתּוֹרָ֑ה אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל “And this is the Torah which Moshe put [sam] before Bnei Israel” (Devarim 4:44)? The word sam is written with the letter sin and means put; it is phonetically similar to the word sam written with the letter samekh, meaning a drug. This use of this word therefore alludes to the following: If one is deserving, the Torah becomes a potion [sam] of life for him. If one is not deserving, the Torah becomes a potion of death for him. (Yoma 72b) It should have been said: 'And this is the Torah which Moshe taught'" (The Maharsha- Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Idles, ibid).

The same happens with a medical 'drug', there are patients that it cures and there are patients that the exact same drug can aggravate the situation to the point of death:

הָיָה רַבִּי בְּנָאָה אוֹמֵר: כׇּל הָעוֹסֵק בְּתוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ — תּוֹרָתוֹ נַעֲשֵׂית לוֹ סַם חַיִּים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ״, וְאוֹמֵר: ״רִפְאוּת תְּהִי לְשָׁרֶּךָ״, וְאוֹמֵר: ״כִּי מֹצְאִי מָצָא חַיִּים״. וְכׇל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ — נַעֲשֵׂית לוֹ סַם הַמָּוֶת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי״, וְאֵין עֲרִיפָה אֶלָּא הֲרִיגָה...״.

"It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Bena’a would say: Anyone who engages in Torah for its own sake, his Torah study will be an elixir of life for him, as it is stated: “It is a tree of life to them who lay hold upon it” (Proverbs 3:18), and it says: “It shall be health to your navel” (Proverbs 3:8), and it says: “For whoever finds Me finds life” (Proverbs 8:35). And anyone who engages in Torah not for its own sake, e.g., for self-aggrandizement, his Torah will be an elixir of death for him, as it is stated: “My doctrine shall drop [ya’arof] as the rain,” and arifa means nothing other than killing... (Taanit 7a).

Sages wanted to emphasize that in the Torah there is an empowering sacred element, which strengthens the soul and its ability to correct its defects

מִתּוֹךְ שֶׁהָיוּ מִתְעַסְּקִין בָּהּ הַמָּאוֹר שֶׁבָּהּ הָיָה מַחֲזִירָן לְמוּטָב.

""If only they deserted me but kept My Torah! As they busied themselves with it, the illumination within it would have brought them back to goodness" (Eichah Rabbah Petichta 2)

"אַךְ אִם הוּא עוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה, בִּרְאוֹתוֹ דְרָכֶיהָ, צִוּוּיֶיהָ וְאַזְהָרוֹתֶיהָ, הִנֵּה סוֹף סוֹף מֵאֵלָיו יִתְחַדֵּשׁ בּוֹ הִתְעוֹרְרוּת שֶׁיְּבִיאֵהוּ אֶל הַדֶּרֶךְ הַטּוֹב" (מסילת ישרים ה א).

"But if he toils in the Torah, when he sees its ways, commandments, and warnings, behold, on its own, eventually a renewal will awaken within him which will bring him to the good path". (Mesilat Yesharim 5)

However, when the soul is fundamentally spoiled and corrupt, it is not only that this empowerment does not correct it but also intensifies its malfunctions and shortcomings.

Sages see the complex phenomenon of studying: לשמה "Torah for its own sake"

לשמה - משום כאשר צוני ה' אלקי ולא כדי להקרות רבי

"Because these are G-d's precepts and not to be called Rabbi" (Rashi Taanit 7a)

"Torah for its own sake" is an elixir of life and anyone who engages in Torah "not for its own sake" is an elixir of death because the exterior motives for learning - such as the request for honor, to be called 'Rabbi', drain the power of holiness from the study.

The Sage's comparison of Torah study 'with a purpose' is explained in another way:

"The Torah for the soul, is like the rain for the soil, it grows whatever is sown in it, an elixir of life or an elixir of death: it grows whatever is in his heart, if his heart is good – his Yirat Shamayim is high- Fear of G-d- straightforwardness will increase; twistedness of the heart is its antithesis, as stated:

וְצַדִּקִים֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔ם וּפֹשְׁעִ֖ים יִכָּ֥שְׁלוּ בָֽם

"The righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them". (Hosea 14:10)

And as they said (Shabbat 88b):

הַיְינוּ דְּאָמַר רָבָא: לַמַּיְימִינִין בָּהּ סַמָּא דְחַיֵּי, לְמַשְׂמְאִילִים בָּהּ סַמָּא דְמוֹתָא.

"And that is what Rava said: To those who are right-handed in their approach to Torah, and engage in its study with strength, good will, and sanctity, Torah is a drug of life, and to those who are left-handed in their approach to Torah, it is a drug of death.

Therefore, one should clear away his heart every day, before and after the study, from rotten opinions and virtues to give way to fear of sin and good deeds". (Vilna Gaon- Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, HaGra Even Shlomo 1:11 \ there he compares these 'removals' from the spiritual breakdowns to going to the toilet, where the body excretes the harmful substances).

Normally the 'light in the Torah' corrects the breakdowns of the soul, but when there is a great spoilage in the psyche, in lust for incest, wealth, honor and power, the damages can intensify to problematic dimensions. Especially among people of elitist status, who have control, connections, and power, who can afford to cross the boundaries of what is allowed and what is forbidden. Assuming that 'it is permissible for them' because they are 'exalted from the people', and that in any case no one will dare to stand up to them and charge them a price for their actions. In such cases, focused mental and spiritual work against the breakdowns is required, so that they do not intensify.

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