According to our Sages (Bava Basra 16a), Iyov (Job) came up with an argument he felt could absolve every man from Heavenly judgement: Master of the Universe – You created an ox with split hooves, and a donkey with joined hooves. You created Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) and Gehinom (Hell). You created the righteous and the wicked. Who can stop You?
Just like the donkey can’t choose to have split hooves, Iyov argued, so too the wicked man can’t choose to be righteous. If one were to take the donkey and split his hooves with an instrument – would he now be an ox? Perhaps, Iyov concedes, the innately wicked can put on a façade of righteousness, but deep down they’re still evil.
Now it’s true that Chazal (our Sages) also say (Niddah 16b) that when a person is born, it is predetermined whether he’ll be strong or weak, smart or dumb, rich or poor… but not whether he’ll be righteous or evil – which would negate the concept of free will. Unlike split vs. joined hooves – or strong vs. weak – our propensity to be good or bad is not part of our genetic code, though obviously different people find different situations more or less challenging.
But Chazal also say that once a person, for whatever reason, has fallen into sin, and repeated the process, it becomes so ingrained in him that he is no longer able to recognize it as sin. Perhaps a man could (depending on the circumstances) be judged and punished for the initial decision to sin, but once immersed in sin, he/she’s essentially powerless to change course.
This was the essence of Iyov’s argument.
To which Hashem responds:
I created the yetzer hara (disposition to sin), and I created the Torah – a spice. If you study Torah, you will not be influenced by its power. Note, the Alter of Kelm says, that Hashem doesn’t discount Iyov’s argument. He doesn’t say, “You’re wrong – everyone can choose to do good or bad.” Hashem concedes that a person can reach a point of no return, a point from which teshuva, true repentance, is no less laughable than the leopard changing its spots.
Except that for these spots there is a stain remover. The Torah. The “potion of Life.”
Just how powerful is the Torah? Just like a spice, which is used in small amounts, yet when used correctly determines the taste of the food you eat, so too the Torah even in small doses can completely change our character. Chazal compare Torah to fire. At first glance, this may be because the Torah (in this week’s parsha) was given amidst fire. But it was also given amidst thunder, lightening, the voice of the shofar, etc. – none of which are used as a metaphor for the Torah. So why fire?
Each of the four basic elements of creation – fire, water, ground, wind – can destroy the other elements. Earth can extinguish a fire, stop the wind, and turn water into mud. Wind can break stones, put out fires, and evaporate water, etc. But fire has a special quality in that it not only destroys that which it overcomes, it sets it alight. Fire turns other elements into fire.
This, Lev Eliyahu writes, is why Torah is compared to fire. There may be other ways to combat the yetzer hara, such as prayer and even psychology, but the only thing which has the power to completely unravel one’s perversity is Torah. It’s not simply that one who studies Torah is given some measure of strength with which to overcome his lesser qualities – he becomes a completely different person, a cheftza (vessel) of Torah. Chazal quote Hashem as saying, “If you study Torah diligently, I will consider it as if you never sinned.” The idea, he explains, is not that Torah causes Hashem to forgive or forget our sins, but rather that through Torah study we’re no longer the same person. [Ohel Moshe]
A non-Torah-observant Jew once approached a frum acquaintance and said he’d like to study together once a week. Sensing a tremendous opportunity for bringing a fellow Jew closer, he called a well-known Rav who had succeeded in bringing hundreds of ‘estranged’ students back to the Torah. “We’re going to study together for ½ hour a week,” he said. “It’s so little time. What should I learn with him? I want to give him at least a small taste of the Torah’s beauty. Perhaps Chumash Bereishis (Genesis – the Torah’s account of the lives of the forefathers), or some wonderful mussar sefer (work of ethics) like Mesilas Yesharim?”
“I think you should study mishnayos Bava Kama,” his mentor replied. “Bava Kama? But that deals with mundane matters. ‘If someone’s ox gored someone else’s cow…’ How is that going to light his flame? Don’t you think we should learn something a little more inspiring?”
“My friend,” the Rav said, “you underestimate the power of Torah study. Chazal say, quoting Hashem (Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagiga I), ‘If only they would have abandoned Me, but kept true to Torah study – the light of the Torah would have guided them back.’ Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s what you learn. Just study Torah, and have faith in its power.” Have a good Shabbos. Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org