Torah is a Tree of Life
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
And all the people answered together and said: “All that God has said we
will do.” (Shemos 19:8)
The Talmud makes an interesting statement:
Rebi Zera, some say Rebi Chanina bar Papa, said: Come and see how the
trait of The Holy One, Blessed is He, is not like the trait of
flesh-and-blood. It is the trait of flesh-and-blood that when a man sells
something to his friend that the seller grieves and the buyer rejoices. The
Holy One, Blessed is He, however, is not like that. He gave the Torah to the
Jewish people and rejoiced, as it says: “For I have given you a good
possession; do not leave My Torah” (Mishlei 4:2). (Brochos 5a)
This is one of those things that the Talmud says as if it is the most
obvious thing in the world, but which forces the rest of us to stand back,
scratch our heads, and say, “Huh?”
Is the statement even accurate? After all, usually when someone sells
something he is only too delighted to do so. Perhaps in situations in which
he is forced to part with something he’d rather keep he is sad to lose
possession of it. But normally when someone sells something it is because
he’d rather have what he is going to receive not what he is giving up.
Secondly, if we were “sold” Torah at all, we were convinced to buy into it,
not to actually buy it. We didn’t need any kind of currency to acquire it,
just a lot of good will. Had we not been taken from a nation that had
imposed a lot of restrictions on our freedom and brought to Mt. Sinai to
become a nation with even greater restrictions on our freedom? Hence, if we
were being sold anything at all, it was this:
The Tablets are the handiwork of God, and the script was God’s script
charus—engraved—on the Tablets. Do not read charus but cheirus—freedom—for
you can have no freer man than the one who engages in Torah study. (Pirkei
Just ask anyone who works in Jewish outreach how tough a sale that is to
make to someone, for example, from the former Soviet Union who came to the
West for a freer lifestyle, or to someone from the West who has grown up
with very few restrictions. It is certainly not easy to sell to someone who
grew up in a Torah household but who has decided to bolt because of the
allurements of a more secular way of life.
On the contrary, if anything should and does make God “sad” it is the
failure to make such a “sale.” Therefore, nothing makes Him happier than a
person who sacrifices his yetzer hara—evil inclination—on the altar of truth
to fulfill the words of His holy Torah. It is for such people, the Midrash
explains, that God made the world in the first place.
So, what’s with the analogy above? If any analogy can be made, it is this one:
Come and see how the trait of The Holy One, Blessed is He, is like the trait
of flesh-and-blood. It is the trait of flesh-and-blood that when a man sells
something to his friend that the seller rejoices and the buyer rejoices. The
Holy One, Blessed is He, however, is the same. He gave the Torah to the
Jewish people and rejoiced, as it says: “For I have given you a good
possession; do not leave My Torah.”
What then did the rabbis mean with their analogy? It can safely be assumed
that they knew our question would arise.
One of the most important points to keep in mind when trying to decipher
the worlds of Chazal (an abbreviation of, “Our Wise Men, may they be
remembered for blessing”), particularly of the time of the Mishnah and the
Talmud, is that they were not only wise people. They were even more than
geniuses. They may not have been prophets, but at the very least they had
Ruach HaKodesh, literally, “Holy Spirit,” a lesser kind of prophecy, or
knowledge that can only be derived through supernatural means.
They were also very careful about what they said, especially when it came to
the Oral Tradition, in order to purposely mislead people who deserved to be
Students who were not willing to subjugate themselves to the truth of Torah,
and perhaps even abusive to those who are, were purposely kept in the dark
regarding the true meaning of their words, something that is reserved for
those who appreciate them.
People see what they want to see. Their perceptions are based upon their
assumptions in life, so if they have faulty assumptions then they also have
faulty perceptions. That’s a very important rule about life that Pharaoh
learned the hard way, and so many other people throughout the ages have
usually learned to late, if at all.
As Dovid HaMelech taught, “The secrets of God [go] to those who fear Him”
(Tehillim 25:14), and that includes the words of Chazal. The above analogy
is but one minor example of this, which is an invitation to delve deeper
into the concepts upon which it is based, and many take for granted.
The starting point to unraveling the analogy is to know the impact of
purchasing something in life. When we buy something, anything, the
transaction is only completed when we give up something of worth for the new
object of our desire.
However, what we surrender to make the purchase,
because it once belonged to us, became a part of us in some way, on some
level, otherwise we would not have related to it and would have abandoned it
This is why, it is explained, that if someone sinned he had to bring a sin
offering from his own money; someone else could not offer his sacrifice on
his behalf. If the animal was to be a stand in for the sinner, then it had
to represent the person in a very real way. He had to feel as if a part of
him was being offered on the altar to atone for his sin. How could he do
that if the animal was purchased with someone else’s money?
It is this giving up of self while acquiring something that should create a
sense of mourning in some way. Who doesn’t hate spending personal money even
when it buys something worthwhile? We know it is necessary, and are even
willing to do it to acquire something of interest, but it still isn’t
completely easy. Even fabulously wealthy people often have difficulty
spending their money, and mourn, on some level, the need to do so, even for
The Zohar teaches that when someone “takes” Torah it is as if they have
“taken” God Himself. Aside from being the blueprint for Creation, Torah
represents the revelation of God in this world, so when a person approaches
Torah with the right amount of reverence and desire to learn it, they are,
in reality, learning about God Himself. As they attach themselves to Torah
they attach themselves to God; it is one and the same thing.
So, when God “shares” His Torah with man, He is in fact sharing Himself,
even giving up part of Himself, so to speak. Such sacrifice, the rabbis in
the analogy above explain, though usually a source of mourning for
flesh-and-blood is completely a source of joy for God. Nothing gives our
Creator greater pleasure than for human beings to have a “piece” of Him,
especially in exchange for our loyalty and commitment to His Torah.
So, by way of a simple analogy Chazal have hinted to a deep sod—secret—of
Torah is not simply the will of God, instructions for living given
to us by the Author who wrote them down. It is God Himself, Who, by
permitting us to acquire His Torah allows us to connect to Him on the
highest of levels by ascending through the levels of Torah, Pshat, Remez,
Drush and Sod (English: Simple, Hint, Elucidation, and Secret). Thus, as one
penetrates deeper into Torah one deepens his or her relationship to God.
And to himself or herself as well. This is because the four levels of Torah
also correspond to our four lowest levels of soul (we have five altogether):
Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah and Chayah (the fifth is Yechidah). As a result, as
one delves deeper into Torah he also delves deeper into himself, since with
Torah awareness comes self-awareness, and that makes God happy as well.
This is why freedom was, is, truly engraved on the Tablets. On the outside
mitzvos look like just a lot of rules and decrees designed to limit, or even
eliminate personal freedom. That’s a hard sale to make to any human being at
any time in history.
On the inside of Torah, however, it’s a different story. Mitzvos are a
training course in enhanced spiritual sensitivity that allows a person to
move from level of soul to level of soul and to rise above the everyday
mundane reality. That’s true freedom, and once a person tastes it there is
really no turning back.
“If I had known back then, when I was in Cheder at a Conservative synagogue,
what doing mitzvos is all about, and what learning Torah really means, I
would have ran towards them, not away from them.” That’s what someone told
me after a couple of learning sessions he just “happened” to attend. Like
many people who return to Judaism, though he had once thought Torah was
ancient, archaic, and enslaving, he now saw it as current, vibrant, and
This is what Shlomo HaMelech, in his wisdom, said:
It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it. (Mishlei 3:18)
In other words, Torah is a tree of life, but only for those who grasp it,
who take the time to understand what Torah really is, and what it can do for
them. For those who do not, Torah and its Divine wisdom remains only a tree,
that is, like plain wood of little value.
This is but the beginning of the discussion. Obviously, there is so much
more to say about the topic, and has been said throughout the ages. After
all, as already mentioned, Torah is the blueprint for Creation, which is
itself is so vast and educating, so how much more so must its blueprint be.
And even more so when the Master of the Universe Himself identifies Himself
Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.