Why One Should Learn Torah

Rabbi Israel Chait


Why Should One Learn Torah?

The questions why one should learn Torah and what benefit one receives from learning Torah are the most basic that one can ask about Judaism. Since Judaism establishes as its central mitzvah the study of Torah, it follows that an understanding of these questions carries with it an understanding of the philosophy of Judaism. This philosophy must bring to light the ultimate good that man is to attain from an adherence to the way of life of Torah.

Judaism is not simply a religion. By religion I mean that which satisfies the religious instinct in man. Many forms of this satisfaction are strictly prohibited in Judaism and even deemed the worst evil. Judaism considers its greatest adversary the unbridled religious emotion of man. This reaches its ultimate manifestation in idolatry. Judaism is a unique metaphysical and philosophical system. Its insistence on knowledge as the only means of determining its practice and worship distinguishes it most exclusively from any other forms of religion. Judaism demands of man a certain level of knowledge. Falsehood is equated with evil, the good with true knowledge. It is precisely for this reason that we were given the Torah. As Maimonides explains in the laws concerning conversion, when we speak to a prospective convert we tell him, "there is no such thing as a truly righteous person other than he who is a possessor of knowledge who keeps the laws and understands them (Code of Laws concerning prohibitions of intercourse Chapter 14, Law 3)."

Judaism is the only religion that views knowledge as indispensable for its practice and maintains that man finds his deepest fulfillment in knowledge. "Say unto wisdom thou are my sister and to understanding shalt thou call a close relative (Proverbs 7:4)." Countless passages of the Torah and the prophets attest to this fact. For this reason the Jews were not supposed to believe in the Torah without witnessing the event at Sinai. Two passages of the Torah make this point exceedingly clear: "Behold I will reveal myself to you in the thickness of the cloud in order that the nation shall hear when I speak with you and also in you will they believe forever(Exodus 19:9)" Also, "The day that you stood before your God in Horeb when God said to me gather for me the nation and I will let them hear my words in order that they shall learn to fear me all the days that they live on the land and unto their children will they teach(Deuteronomy 4:10)."

The Prophet never criticized the recalcitrant Jews because they lacked in religiosity but because they abandoned the beneficial and knowledgeable ways of the Torah for nonsense and folly. Jews are often rebuked for their misguided religiosity as in Isaiah 1:11-15, 48:1-6. Falsehood is the enemy of Torah, knowledge its stronghold. "God Almighty is True (Jeremiah 10:10)."

Judaism does not fear honest scientific inquiry. We have never had a Galileo episode. Indeed not one of our "baaley mesorah" (authentic Torah scholars) has ever suggested the denial of any scientifically demonstrated conclusions about the natural world. The most absurd idea imaginable to Judaism is to suggest that we deny our senses or our minds. It would mean the denial of the event of Sinai, the very basis of our Torah. No true Torah scholar has ever suggested the denial of what we see with our eyes and what is conclusively proven with our minds.

The true religion can only find support from all sources of knowledge as all knowledge has as its source one Creator. What Judaism does scorn is pseudo-intellectualism, rash decisions stemming not from man's "Tzelem Elokim," his divine gift of intellect which the Creator has endowed him with, but from alien sources which lie deeply rooted in man's instinctual nature. All roads of true inquiry lead to one conclusion, the existence of the Creator and the realization of our inability to comprehend His greatness. As Albert Einstein has stated, "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, a spirit vastly superior to that of man and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble."

There is one portion of the Torah that is singled out from all others in terms of religious significance, the Shema (Deuteronomy 4:4-9). We are required to recite it twice daily. We are further required to bind this portion to our arms and to our heads and to place it on our doorposts. It is obvious, therefore, that of all the portions of the Torah, this one is considered to contain the most crucial and fundamental message. The first statement, "Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is One," contains three ideas: the existence of God, His Oneness, and the fact that He relates to us. The third statement, "And these words" further enjoins us to study the Torah. Rashi tells us that this third statement teaches us how to accomplish the injunction contained in the previous statement. Rashi states, "And what is this love? Because through this, the study of Torah, one will come to recognize the Holy One blessed be He, and you will cling to His ways." Rashi's source is the Sifri. Maimonides in his "Sefer Hamitzvot," Book of the Commandments, in the third positive commandment elaborates, :"He commanded us to love Him, may He be exalted. This means that we should analyze and ponder His commandments, His words, and His works until we comprehend it and we enjoy in its comprehension the ultimate delight."

This is the love that is obligatory upon us. The words of the Sifri in this matter are, "It says 'and you shall love the Lord your God', but I do not know how one loves God. The Torah therefore tells us, 'these words which I command you shall be upon your heart.' This refers to the study of Torah, because through it you recognize the One who spoke and caused the universe to come into existence." This Sifri is an interesting one. For the Sifri the commandment to love God presented a serious problem. "How can one love God?" asks the Sifri. The Sifri was perplexed and could not take the commandment at face value. Why not? The answer is rooted in Judaism's idea of God.

The God of Israel is inherently unknowable and undefinable. "To whom can you liken me that I may be compared, saith the Holy One (Isaiah 40:25)." His essence is removed from any created existences that man can know. How then can we direct the emotion of love to an unknowable entity? Love requires an object. For the Sifri the very commandment to love God was a monumental dilemma. The Sifri explains that the Torah anticipates this question and gives us a solution. It is true that we cannot apply love to God as one would to an ordinary object. There is, however, a path we may take in order to fulfill this commandment. When we study God's Torah and when we contemplate His works we become filled with ecstasy over his wisdom. As Maimonides continues to explain, "Behold we have made clear to you that through study and contemplation you will attain knowledge and you will then attain the delight and enjoyment and the love will necessarily follow." This concept of the love of God is unique. It is not like the love of an object as God is not an object that is apprehended by the mind. It is only similar to love in the sense that one is drawn towards God, longs for Him, and desires to approach Him. This desire can only be attained through the study and appreciation and delight in partaking of God's infinite knowledge. If one does not study Torah, if one does not take delight and marvel at the beauty of God's wisdom, one cannot be overcome with the longing to reach forth towards the source of all wisdom and knowledge - the Creator of the Universe. It is for this reason Maimonides states in the conclusion of his laws concerning repentance that the love of God is in direct proportion to one's knowledge"And according to the knowledge will be the love, if great, great,and if small, small." It cannot exceed his knowledge for it is only the experience which results directly from knowledge that is defined by the Torah as the love of God. All other emotional expressions of love are extraneous and are not considered as a component of the mitzvah.

In this commandment we have a singular phenomenon. The injunction cannot be carried out directly. We cannot will ourselves to love God. Here the performance of the mitzvah and the fulfillment of the mitzvah are two separate entities. The performance is the study, the analysis, the understanding of God's laws. The fulfillment is found in the enjoyment and delight one experiences while learning, which causes one to turn towards God, to long for Him. As Maimonides expresses it through the words of King David, "My soul thirsts for the Almighty the living God(Psalms 42:3)."

Why should one study Torah? Because it is only through Torah that one can fulfill the one commandment that is the end goal of the entire Torah-the love of God. Why should one study Torah? Because the study brings man close to the source of all reality-the Creator of the Universe. Why should one study Torah? Because through the study of Torah man attains the highest possible state of human existence-the very purpose for which he was created. It is for this reason he was endowed with the "Tzelem Elokim," his divine element. All else that a person may do in life is only a means for the state of mind derived from the learning of Torah. It is the most satisfying state of human existence attainable; one that gives man his true happiness. According to judaism man's psyche was specifically designed for this experience. In it all psychic energies are involved in a sublime joy and appreciation of intellectual beautitude. As such it is the most gratifying experience possible for man.

 

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