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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Intensity in Torah Study

Rashi, citing the Sifra, interprets the opening words of parshat Bechukotai- "Im be-hukotai teileichu" as a reference to undistracted, intense Torah study (ameilim ba-Torah).  It is noteworthy that focused Torah study, notwithstanding its cognitive character, is perceived as an expression and perhaps a method of cultivating a commitment to chukim, generally associated with dimension of surrender and pure commitment in religious life.

We can comprehend this equation and its significance by appreciating the importance of "ameilut" (toil) in concentrated Torah study. While superficial study may be an exclusively cognitive act, comprehensive and concentrated Torah learning, which seeks mastery over the vast and profound halachic corpus (see Kidushin 30a), demands total commitment, entails intellectual and spiritual surrender to the inner logic of halachic thought, and is particularly conducive to shaping a Torah personality. Hence, ameilut in Torah study is identified with the observance of chukim.

The midrash Tanhuma (beginning of parshat Noah) asserts that the chapter of Kriyat Shema that encapsulates the theme of kabbalat ol malchut Shamayim relates specifically to "amalei torah she-baal peh" (to those devotees of intense Torah studies, especially focusing on the vast and intricate oral tradition)! This comment reinforces the idea conveyed by the Sifra that intense study reflects and engenders absolute religious commitment.

In a passage in massechet Shabbat (88a), the gemara further alludes to the interrelationship between concentrated study and the singular character of halachic commitment that transcends logic and obvious self-interest. The gemara relates that Rava was so engrossed and immersed in his studies that he was oblivious to the fact that his posture (his feet resting on his tightly gripped hands) had generated a bleeding wound. A certain Saducee (denier of the oral tradition), upon witnessing this phenomenon, began to agitate about the shortcomings of a people that could naively proclaim naaseh ve-nishmah (we will act, and we will understand), thereby unqualifiedly committing to a way of life without prior comprehension of the scope or content of that commitment. It is likely no coincidence that the agitator was a denier of the oral tradition, which forms the foundation for an expanded halachic corpus, and which according to the Tanchuma (supra) constitutes a linchpin for kabbalat ol malchut Shamayim. This Saducee apparently intuited the link between intense involvement in Torah study (that might even account for a state of concentration that would leave one unaware of a minor wound) and the idealistic capacity for a naaseh ve-nishma commitment, that is unconditional, that transcends comprehension, and that embraces the inner logic and even the unsolved mysteries (chukim) of Divine law. Thus, experiencing Rava's ameilut triggered the Saduceean ideological outburst.

Rashi (26:14,15) implies that ameilut - devotion and intensity - is a sine qua non to fortify halachic commitment and to buttress scrupulous observance against spiritually challenging counter pressures. He identifies the absence of ameilut as the catalyst that triggers the downward spiral of the Jewish people chronicled in the subsequent verses in the parshah. The nation becomes vulnerable even to heresy and idolatry without the foundation of ameilut!  

This seemingly harsh perspective resonates elsewhere in rabbinic literature. Chazal attribute the calamitous events that transpired in Refidim to a weakening of the intensity of Torah study (she-rafu yadam mei-talmud torah), not to its absolute neglect. Similarly, the gemara in Megilah (11a) asserts that a casual or lazy (nitazlu) attitude regarding Torah study contributed to the receptivity of Klal Yisrael to idolatry during the Purim era. The same Rava (Shabbat 88b) whose concentrated study provoked the Saducean diatribe against naaseh ve-nishma, declares that intense, impassioned Torah study energizes, elevates, and protects, but casual, perfunctory Torah study may actually prove destructive by trivializing and reducing the stature of devar Hashem ("la-meyamnim bah sama de-hayay; la-masmeilim bah sama demita").

These statements articulating the importance of urgency and intensity in Torah study and the severe adverse consequences of its neglect attest to the critical spiritual therapeutic function and the transformative power of Torah study (see Kidushin 30a). Moreover, these perspectives also underscore the implied underlying values of kabalat ol malchut Shamayim and yirat Shamayim that link the concepts of im bechukotai teileichu, naaseh ve-nishma (Shabbat 88a), and Kriyat Shema (Tanchuma, Noach) with intensive and impassioned Torah study.  

Indeed, the navi (Iyov 5:7) informs us that the very purpose of man's creation was to provide a proper framework for his capacity for concentrated effort ("ki adam le-amal yulad"). The gemara (Sanhedrin 99b) identifies this "amal" with rigorous, continuous Torah study (based upon the verse in Yehoshua- "lo yamish sefer ha-Torah ha-zeh mipichah ve-hagita bo yomam va-laylah". See, also, Menachot 99b and a further link to Kriyat Shema). Intense and intensive Torah study enables man to extricate himself from the mundane and pragmatic and to eschew skepticism and a narrow empiricism. It affords him the capacity to embrace transcendence, to forge a meaningful bond with Hashem by means of devar Hashem, his Revelation. This aspiration justifies his very creation.

As we move closer to celebrating the experience of mattan Torah during the Shavuot holiday, we should rededicate ourselves not only to Torah study but also to the ideal of ameilut in all of its dimensions.

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