To Labor in Torah – Behar-Behukotai 5781

D'var Torah | Leviticus


Having stated the laws of the priests and their respective functions as well as the ethical foundations of Judaism, the book of Leviticus ends with a promise and warning: a promise of the rewards for loyalty to God and a warning of the consequences of disobedience.


God lists for the Israelites the blessings that come to those who “walk in His statutes” (Leviticus 26:3). The expression is oblique, to say the least. It says nothing about how one is to do it. So along comes the best known and most popular of all biblical commentators, Rabbi Solomon ben Yitzhak of Troyes, better known as RaShI, to help elucidate. RaShI explains that walk in God’s statutes means to “labor in the Torah.” But this explanation requires an explanation as well. What, exactly, does “laboring in the Torah” mean?


Here, Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-kohen Kagan (d. 1933) offers a solution by way of an anecdote. A yeshivah student once appeared before him with a complaint. “Rabbi,” he said mournfully, “I have been studying hard for many years and still I cannot master a single page of Talmud with its commentaries!” The Hafetz Hayyim, as Rabbi Kagan was known, responded admonishingly: “God never commanded us to be scholars and geniuses. We are only supposed to think about Torah day and night, in other words, to labor in Torah. We labor in Torah no matter the outcome, even when we do not turn into scholars. Not only that. For us the “learned man” is not the one who possesses knowledge but the one who dedicates oneself to study. Just like a thief. A thief is not a person who is an expert in the laws of theft but a person who actively steals.”


We might quibble over using the example of a thief but the idea is clear enough. The study of Torah is a virtue in itself, regardless of the outcome.







Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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