Hamaayan / The Torah Spring
Edited by Shlomo Katz
Contributing Editor: Daniel Dadusc
Volume XIII, No. 17
20 Shevat 5759
February 6, 1998
Orach Chaim 53:2-4
Daf Yomi: Yoma 33
Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 26
Chazal record that when Hashem prepared to give the Torah to the Jewish people, several mountains came forth and claimed that the Torah should be given on their summits. One of these was Har Tavor and another was Har Carmel. However, both mountains were rejected in favor of humble Har Sinai.
R’ Yechezkel Abramsky z”l (died 1976) explains: Har Tavor represents Yisrael’s military might (as described in last week’s haftarah). Har Carmel represents Yisrael’s ability to persuade, as reflected in the successful challenge that Eliyahu Hanavi made on Har Carmel to the prophets of the idol Ba’al (see Melachim I ch.18). Each of these mountains argued that through the strength which that mountain represents the Jewish people would spread the Torah to the whole world.
What these mountains failed to understand was that the Torah was not meant to be imposed on other nations either by military might or by persuasion. “I am Hashem your G-d Who took you out of Egypt.” The Torah is intended only for that nation that was taken out of Egypt. Only that nation said, “na’aseh ve’nishmah”/”we will do it even before we understand it,” which is a prerequisite to receiving the Torah.
In fact, “na’aseh ve’nishmah” conveys two important ideas. One is the recognition that feelings follow, and are the result of, deeds. (One must act like a “spiritual” being before he can feel like one, not vice-versa.) The other is that the depth of feelings that one attains is commensurate with the level of his service and toil. The Torah states regarding the mitzvot (Vayikra 18:5), “That a person shall do them and live through them.” To the extent that a person does the mitzvot, to that extent will his soul attain life. (Chazon Yechezkel: Pesachim, Introduction)
R’ Nachman of Breslov z”l (1772-1810) taught: At times, a person’s passion to come close to Hashem may burn more fiercely than it should. This is actually the work of the yetzer hara, and this is why Hashem had to warn Moshe to keep Bnei Yisrael at a distance from Har Sinai. (Likutei Maharan I 72)
R’ Simlai taught: “Hashem commanded 613 mitzvot to Moshe – 365 negative commandments, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the parts of a man’s body.” R’ Hamnuna taught: “What verse alludes to this? ‘Moshe commanded the Torah to us . . .’ The gematria of ‘vru,’/’Torah’ is 611. Add to this ‘I am Hashem’ and ‘You shall not have any other gods,’ which we heard from G-d’s mouth, and you have 613 commandments.” (Tractate Makkot 23b-24a)
Regarding the two commandments which Bnei Yisrael heard directly from Hashem, Rashi comments, “G-d spoke one and we heard two.” This alludes to Chazal’s teaching that Hashem spoke the commandments simultaneously and the Jewish people miraculously heard them as separate statements.
Unlike humans, who have many different body parts, Hashem is indivisible. It is thus fitting that Hashem spoke the commandments all at once, undifferentiated from each other. On the other hand, we, who have many organs, received the Torah as 613 mitzvot; as the verse says, “Moshe commanded the Torah – i.e., the many mitzvot – _to_us_.” Indeed, as the above gemara expressly notes, the 248 positive commandments correspond to the parts of the human body. Elsewhere we are taught that the 365 negative commandments correspond to 365 tendons or nerves in the human body.
In this light, we can understand the perplexing continuation of the above gemara. The gemara teaches: “King David came along and condensed the commandments to eleven. The prophet Michah further condensed them to three. The prophet Yishayah further condensed them to two. Finally, the prophet Chabakuk condensed them to one, i.e., ‘A tzaddik will live by his faith’.” How are we to understand this?
Just as all 248 organs and 365 tendons and nerves operate properly in a healthy body, so a healthy soul is one that observes all 248 positive commandments and all 365 negative commandments. However, even if a person becomes ill and parts of his body cease to function, there is still hope for his recovery so long as certain essential organs are healthy. Similarly, the gemara is teaching, there is hope for every person, even a sinner, so long as he still observes certain essential mitzvot. How many are those mitzvot? According to King David, they are eleven; according to Michah – three; according to Yishayah – two; and according to Chabakuk – one, i.e., emunah/faith. Chababkuk taught that a person who has ceased to observe all mitzvot – though he is spiritually ill – may yet recover from his illness if he retains his emunah.
In this way we can understand, as well, the story of the would- be convert who insisted on learning the whole Torah while standing on one leg. The sage Hillel told him, “That which is hateful to you do not do unto others. The rest is commentary; go learn it.” Hillel did not mean that a person may be called Torah- observant if he merely treats others as he wishes to be treated. Rather, Hillel meant that if the convert would master this one mitzvah, he would subsequently grow into the others.
Of course, one should not use the foregoing explanation as an excuse to lessen the number of mitzvot that he observes. The mishnah teaches, “Hashem wanted to provide merit to the Jewish people, so He gave them many mitzvot.” Rambam explains that because there are so many mitzvot, it is inevitable that a person will do one mitzvah correctly and will thereby merit a portion in the World-to-Come. Were there fewer mitzvot (or were one to observe fewer mitzvot), one’s chances of succeeding at even one mitzvah would be dramatically less. In the end, though, it may be just one mitzvah, done perfectly, which guarantees a person his place in the World-to-Come. Even the great Talmudic sage R’ Chaninah ben Teradyon, after he was told that he would die a martyr’s death at the hands of the Romans, asked, “Will I merit a place in the World-to-Come?” The answer that he was given was that he had earned his place in the World-to-Come, not by teaching Torah at risk to his life, but because of one unusual act of charity which he had performed (See Avodah Zarah 18a). [Most people, however, will not know in their lifetime what their most successful mitzvah was.] (Yad Haketanah: Introduction) [Ed. Note: Yad Haketanah is an anonymously written early 19th century commentary on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.]
This week’s letter is attributed to R’ Avraham (1186-1237), the son and successor to Rambam. It is printed in Sefer Milchamot Hashem, p.117. R’ Avraham was asked to explain the statement in the gemara (Bava Batra 12a), “A wise man is preferable to a prophet.” Does this not demean the prophets and play into the hands of heretics? he was asked.
R’ Avraham answered that the prophets whose words are recorded in Tanach were, in addition to being prophets, wise men. Accordingly, they were certainly greater than the wise men of later times. However, there are instances recorded in Tanach (e.g. Shmuel I 19:20-21) in which people who were not actually fit to be prophets nevertheless experienced prophecy. Regarding that type of prophet it is said, “A wise man is preferable to a prophet.”
Following this explanation, R’ Avraham concluded his letter by addressing himself to those who use Chazal’s statements to demean the prophets and the Torah:
One does not recognize the purity of the sages of the Torah and denigrates them, is denigrating the Torah of Hashem. He does not fear G-d, and he is destined to be called to task and punished. Woe to one who places the reins that should control his beliefs and his thoughts in the hands of his worldliness and who does not think about what will be his end. He leaves the service of Hashem because of his physical desires, and he causes his soul to fall to its destruction, merely because of his wish to be obstinate and contrary. He closes his eyes and ears to the truth; he is one about whom it says (Yishayah 43:8), “To liberate those who are blind, though they have eyes, and deaf, though they have ears.”
These people refuse to understand and to do good. They do not choose to draw close to wise men because they hate the truth, as it is written (Mishlei 15:12), “A scoffer does not like being reproved; he will not go to the wise.” Those who love the truth attach themselves to the sages, and about them it is written (ibid 31), “The ear that hears life-giving reproof will abide in the midst of the wise.”
Those who hate reproof and hate those who give reproof are forfeiting both Worlds; they acquire a bad name and they separate themselves from the congregation in This World and they fall into Divine retribution in the World-to-Come. They will die full of doubts about their own beliefs, as it is written (Mishlei 5:23), “He will die without reproof, and he will stray in his abundant foolishness.” It also says (ibid 10:21), “The foolish will die with a lack of understanding.” On the other hand, wisdom is the bright light and the shining sun whose light no person can banish from the land . . . and the way of the wise men is enlightening.
Sponsored by The Edeson family on the yahrzeit of mother Hannah Salsbury z”l
Copyright © 1998 by Shlomo Katz and Project Genesis, Inc.
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