Sunday, October 4, 2015

Knowledge of God through Torah Study (Why We Learn Torah Series - Part 7)

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz

We have explored the value of human intuition and the study of science and nature for acquiring knowledge of Hashem.  However, these are not the fields of study that will lead man to the ultimate truth.  Only Torah study can provide man with the complete and absolute truth.[1] 

This principle is expressed in Tehillim 19.  The Psalmist begins with seven verses extolling the virtue of studying the world as a means to gaining a deeper perception of God.  The psalmist proclaims that the sky with all of its planets and stars “declare the glory of God (מספרים כבוד קל).”  The nights “reveal knowledge” (יחוה דעת), and the sun, although it does not speak, demonstrates God’s greatness (אין אומר ואין דברים בלי נשמע קולם בכל הארץ יצא קום).”    But after these seven verses, the Psalmist proclaims, “The Torah of Hashem is perfect (תורת ה' תמימה)” and, “The statues of God are trustworthy, they make the fool wise (עדות ה' נאמנה מחכמת פתי).”  The message of the psalm is that with all of the value of nature notwithstanding, Torah study is the greater value.  It is specifically Torah study that has the ability to take a person’s perception to a whole new level.[2] 

Perhaps this message is also the intention of the Mishna in Pirkei Avos 3:7,
One who is walking along the path and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his learning and says, “How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!,” such a person is considered to be guilty with his life.
The Mishna is not teaching that the contemplation of nature, or even the appreciation of its beauty is of no value.  Rather the Mishna is comparing the study of nature with the study of Torah.  One who is walking on the road and contemplating God’s creations is certainly behaving meritoriously.  However, not if he interrupts Torah study, which is the surest path to the truth.[3]

The most direct avenue to knowledge of God is the study of Torah.  We suggested earlier that the study of Torah provides access to God’s perspective.  Well, the more one becomes familiar with how God “thinks,” the more he actually knows God himself.   Lehavdil, when one studies an author’s writings it does not only provide insight into the thinking of the author, but also provide a prospective on the author himself.  Similarly, the study of God’s Torah does not only familiarize the reader with the thinking of God, but actually provides a perspective into the essence of God Himself. 

But with God this principle is much truer than with a regular author.  Unlike the average author, God created the Torah with the express intent of it being a medium for knowing Him and His world.  Chazal teach that the word “Anochi (אנכי)” in the beginning of the Ten Commandments – God’s opening declaration to the Jewish nation – is an acronym for “I have attached my essence to this writing (אנא נפשי כתבית יהבית).”  The idea being that Hashem created Torah as a medium for knowing – to some degree – His essence. Indeed, we are told by Chazal “These words [of Torah] should be placed upon your heart – For through this you will come to recognize God” (Sifrei, Ve-Eschanan 8).  

That Torah provides a window into the essence of God is also expressed in Bamidbar 12:8, where the Torah states about Moshe that he saw the “picture (תמונת ה' יביט)” of God.  The Chofetz Chaim comments on this verse that Torah is like a photograph of Hashem, as it reveals God’s attributes and presents a person with a greater understanding of God.  Along these lines, the Maharal of Prague suggests that Torah is called a tree, in the famous verse “עץ חיים היא,” because a tree is a direct outgrowth of its roots. So too, Torah is a direct outgrowth of the root of all creation – God.   Again, we find a cryptic line in the Ramban’s introduction to his commentary on Torah that the verses of the Torah are the “names” of God.  The Maharsha explains (Berachos 21a) that a name generally serves to be a description of something.  The Torah is, in a sense, a description of God and hence Ramban refers to its verses as the “names” of God. 

In conclusion we see that one who studies Torah comprehensively and deeply will gain tremendous insight into the essence of God.  In fact, studying Torah is the most elevated pursuit of man, and is the most “human” thing that a person can do.  This is because Torah study is an exercise in man using his most elevated faculty and applying it to acquire the most elevated knowledge in creation.[4]

[1] Do not err and think that the passages from the Rambam quoted earlier from Hilchos Yesodei ha-Torah and Hilchos Teshuva about studying science to acquire love of God imply that the study of nature is supreme.  When one reads the full context of Hilchos Teshuva it is clear that the Rambam is not coming to solely encourage the study of nature.  It is clear from the preeceding halachos that Torah study is what the Rambam is encouraging.  In the above quoted passage the Rambam is merely adding that it is also worthy to set aside time to study nature as well.   
This reading is buttressed by some of the other writings of the Rambam on the topic of cultivating love of God.  In these contexts, the Rambam implicitly encourages Torah study as that which will cultivate love of God.  This is seen, for example, in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvos #3, “The third commandment is that we were commanded to love God.  This is accomplished by contemplating and understanding His commandments and His deeds until we come to an understanding of Him.”  Understanding God’s “deeds” may very well be a reference to studying the created world, although it could also refer to history.  However, the charge to understand God’s “commandments” is seemingly a directive to study Torah.   In the Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam goes even further as he states that it is specifically the study the Torah that will bring a person to love of God, and he makes no mention there of the study of nature (Moreh Nevuchim, III:52),  “The principle that we are taught by the Torah, which are knowledge of [God’s] existence and His unity, are principle that will [also] teach us love [of God]… Love [of God] comes via the principle of the Torah.”  It emerges from the Rambam, that although he encourages the study of science, a field that can teach a person the truths of reality and even a bit about the truths of God Himself, the ultimate source for knowledge of truth is the Torah. 
[2] Indeed, the number of verses here are of significance.  The number seven is generally associated with the natural order, and hints to the seven days of creation.  For this reason there are seven verses describing the natural world and its ability to proclaim the glory of God.  But the number eight reflects a step beyond nature.  Hence, the eighth verse in this psalm corresponds to Torah, which is beyond the natural world.  See Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael, Chapter 2, and Derech Chayim 6:2). 
[3] The study of science and nature has its limits, but the study of Torah takes precedence over the study of these other fields.  The Maharal (Derech Chaim 6:2) suggests that for this reason the Torah’s description of creation starts with the letter beis (ב'), whereas the Ten Commandments begin with alef (א').  This letter choice serves to hint that Torah takes precedence over nature.  
[4] This provides a new perspective on those who spend large amounts of time studying in-depth Gemara.  Many such people often place a tremendous stress on abstract areas of study.  They sit for hours trying to figuring out an abstract, non-practical minutia of law.  They will spend hours trying to decipher a position in the Gemara that is ultimately rejected.  Why is this?  On one hand, one can say that this shows a real dedication to God and to Torah study.  When a person benefits practically from something so then there is always another motivation for one’s involvement.  Indeed, studying something just for the sake of study is the ultimate sign of dedication to the cause and of a love of the law giver.  But we can now understand an additional perspective.  The more abstract and sophisticated the study, the more it reflects man’s unique elevated capabilities.  From a certain perspective, the more the study is non-practical, the more it reflects one’s humanity.  Such study highlights man’s unique abstract mind and his ability to transcend the practical.  Indeed, Laws that are today less applicable, and especially those that are more abstract, such as many of laws of ritual purity, are specifically reflective of man’s elevated level.  What makes man’s mind so unique is its ability to consider abstract thoughts.   An in-depth study of an abstract concept or topic is distinctly human.  Studying abstract Torah is using one’s most elevated faculty – his mind – to study the most elevated field of study – Torah – in the most elevated way – abstract thinking.

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