Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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6 Tammuz 5761 - June 27, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Chukas HaTorah

by L. Jungerman

"`This is the statute of the Torah.' Since the nations of the world taunt Israel saying: What kind of a commandment is this? What reason lies behind it? -- therefore it is called `statute'. It is a [arbitrary] decree before Me and you have no permission to question it" (Rashi).

We learn here that the word used, chuka, statute, relates to a decree which rouses astonishment. What, indeed, is the logic behind it? With the gates of understanding sealed before us, the command was issued: this is a decree from before Me. You have no permission to ponder over it and question it.

The answer to this was pronounced in Heaven as well in response to the clamor of the angels who pondered over the terrible torture afflicted upon R' Akiva: Is this Torah and its reward? A heavenly echo issued forth and declared: If I hear another voice, I will reduce the entire world to water. This is a decree issued by Me!

It is surprising to learn that Chazal included toil-in-Torah in the category of an unfathomable edict. Truly, this fact begs examination! "`If you walk in My statutes and heed My commandments and do them' -- one might think this refers to actually performing the mitzvos. How then am I to understand the exhortation of walking in His statutes? [The reconciliation is] that you toil in Torah" (Rashi, Bechukosai).

It is clearly evident from here that the act of toiling in Torah is included as an unquestionable edict, a chok. It surpasses human understanding in the same manner as the laws of the poroh adumoh. What does this actually mean? The answer, says HaRav Simcha Zissel Broide zt'l, is to be found in this week's portion. "`This is the Torah: if a man dies in the tent . . . ' to teach us that the words of Torah can only be fulfilled by one who sacrifices himself over it [with `tent' referring to the Tent of Torah]" (Brochos 63). This is the marvelous statute embodied within toil-in-Torah.

Rosh Yeshivas Chevron writes: The Torah is everlasting life, but most amazing of all is that while Torah is an elixir of life for the entire world, it can also become a venomous substance. It is written in maseches Shabbos that Torah is a lifegiving potion to those who "go with it to the right side," for the good, while those who use it for evil, "to the left," will find it deadly.

Who are those who channel it to the right, and those who do so to the left? Rashi explains there: Those who channel it to the right are those who delve in Torah with all their might and exert themselves to extract its secret, like a man who employs his right hand dexterously, since his strength lies in it. The `leftists' are those who do not delve sufficiently in Torah but rather, they do not exert themselves as much as they could.

What a prodigious, awesome power is contained in ameilo shel Torah, exertion for the good. Its potency is so great as to be beyond human grasp, a veritable inscrutability. An axiom we cannot question or integrate, for it is beyond our ken. The selfsame Torah is an elixir of life -- but lacking the element of toil and exertion, it is transformed to a poison.

Chazal teach us that Hashem overlooked the cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery and murder, but would not overlook the people's rejection and repulsing the Torah. Is this not something unfathomable and inscrutable? Hashem was willing to turn aside from the most terrible of sins, but could not bear, as it were, the fact that Jews had despised the Torah. And how was this expressed? To what degree did they `despise the Torah'?

Say Chazal: In their not reciting the blessing over it first before they sat down to study it. For if they had delved into Torah through toil and endeavor, their study would have elevated them from the dregs and restored them to good. Their study would have been far more effective than all the exhortations and warnings of the prophets!

The gemora tells: "Our Sages taught that the following halochoh was forgotten by the Bnei Beseira. The fourteenth of Nisan fell on a Shabbos and the Sages did not know whether the Pesach sacrifice was to be postponed because of Shabbos or to be sacrificed as usual. They said: Is there anyone here who knows whether the Pesach sacrifice overrides the Shabbos or not? They said to them: A man by the name of Hillel Habavli has recently come up from Bovel. He attended the two great leaders of the generation, Shemaya and Avtalyon. He would know . . . Thereupon, they [took Hillel and] placed him at their head and appointed him nosi over them. He sat and expounded upon the laws of Pesach the entire day. And he began to taunt them, saying: What brought about my coming here from Bovel and being appointed nosi over you? The fact that you are lazy and you did not attend the two gedolei hador, Shemaya and Avtalyon" (Pesochim 66).

Bnei Beseira were, themselves, the gedolei hador, the nesi'im of Eretz Yisroel. But they encountered a question of practical halochoh and did not know what to do. Along comes someone and tells them about Hillel the Babylonian who, apparently, was not yet famous. "Someone recently immigrated . . . " Not "someone special" or "a great man," merely a scholar, one of many. And by virtue of what thing should he be consulted in a matter that eluded the Bnei Beseira? The fact that "he attended the two great leaders of the generation." And indeed, Hillel was able to enlighten them and determine the halochoh, and from his words it was evident that he was truly a great person.

Bnei Beseira could have accorded Hillel great honor. They could have praised and publicized him, included him in the circle of the distinguished scholars who sit at the dais, so to speak, who are first and foremost in everything of import. This, in itself, would have been a great honor and deference to an unknown scholar who had recently arrived from Bovel and whose reputation was not yet established. But Bnei Beseira would not forgive themselves or condone the fact that a halochoh had eluded them. This, they felt, showed that they had not exerted themselves enough in Torah. They fell short in yegiya and consequently, were not fit to serve as nesi'im. This unknown scholar, Hillel, had apparently toiled much more in Torah. And so, they forwent their stature and position and appointed Hillel as nosi over them!

And what was Hillel's reaction? Let us see who this Hillel is: The gemora exhorts us: "A person should always [strive to] be as humble as Hillel" (Shabbos 30b). Still, instead of being struck dumb with emotion and awe by this magnanimous gesture of the Bnei Beseira, the acknowledged leaders of the community, instead of showing deep gratitude at the great honor bestowed upon him he -- uncharacteristically -- taunts and teases them!

What brought about this bowing out of the Bnei Beseira in favor of Hillel? And what caused Hillel to act so out of character?

"Your laziness . . . " The Torah condemns the attribute of laziness, or lack of alacrity and dogged perseverance. Certainly they did not lack adherence and diligence in Torah. But they could have achieved even more had they exerted themselves to travel to Bovel and actually study under Shemaya and Avtalyon, and attend them. To what lengths is criticism aimed at the one who does not exert and extend himself to the fullest, when just a bit more, and again a bit more, could have gained him proportionately so much greater benefit. Yet another achievement in Torah.

This is chukas haTorah, the secret of the statute of Torah.

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