By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Most are familiar with the comment of Rashi on the opening posuk of Parshas Bechukosai. His words are so oft-repeated in shmuessen and drashos that they have become a cliché, marching orders to generations of bnei Torah of all ages. Let’s review them.
The posuk states, “Im bechukosai teileichu ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru va’asisem osam – If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandment and perform them,” you will be extremely blessed.
Regarding the words “Im bechukosai teileichu,” the Toras Kohanim states, “Melameid sheHakadosh Boruch Hu misaveh sheyihiyu Yisroel ameilim baTorah – We see from here that Hashem desires for the Jewish people to be omeil in Torah.”
How does the Toras Kohanim derive this lesson from the words “Im bechukosai teileichu,” which appear to indicate that Hashem wants us to follow His chukim? The posuk says nothing about studying Torah.
Apparently, this question was troubling Rashi, and it led him to quote a different message from the Toras Kohanim. “I would think that the words ‘Im bechukosai teileichu‘ refer to their literal meaning, namely observing the commandments known as chukim. But if that is the case, why does the Torah then repeat itself and state ‘ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru,’ referring once again to mitzvah observance?”
Rashi therefore writes those immortal words, explaining that “Im bechukosai teileichu” doesn’t mean that we will be blessed if we follow the chukim, but, rather, “shetihiyu ameilim baTorah,” that you shall toil in Torah. Those who toil in Torah will be blessed.
Perhaps we can understand that the meaning of “melameid sheHakadosh Boruch Hu misaveh sheyihiyu Yisroel ameilim baTorah” is that Hashem desires for us to study Torah lishmah, for its sake, purely for the sake of study and not to fulfill any mitzvos.
While there is a mitzvah to learn Torah as expressed in the posuk of “Vehogisa bo yomam volaylah,” which directs us to study Torah day and night whenever we are able to, one who learns Torah lishmah definitely fulfills a mitzvah, but he learns not because it is a mitzvah to learn and not because he is desirous of any reward. He studies Torah for the sake of studying Torah and to understand Hashem’s words and teachings, not for any other purpose. He connects with the Creator, forming an unbreakable bond with his Master. He is the reason Hashem created the world, and thus He is “misaveh,” as Hashem waits for people such as this man to engage in Torah study. They are therefore promised just rewards.
The Rambam, in his introduction to the Yad Hachazakah, writes that the mitzvos were given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai accompanied by their laws and explanations. He derives this from the posuk (Shemos 24:12) which states, “V’etnah lochem es luchos ho’even, vehaTorah vehamitzvah – And I gave you the luchos, the Torah and the mitzvah.”
The Rambam explains that “Torah” refers to Torah Shebiksav, the Written Torah, and “mitzvah” refers to the explanations, Torah Shebaal Peh, the Oral Torah. He gave us Torah Shebiksav and commanded us to practice it according to Torah Shebaal Peh.
Thus, we see that when the Torah uses the word “mitzvah,” it can refer to the commandments, but it can also refer to Torah Shebaal Peh, which explains to us how to perform those commandments.
With this, we can understand the posuk in a new way. “Im bechukosai teileichu,” if you toil in learning for the sake of limud haTorah itself, “ve’es mitzvosai tishmeru,” and you pursue the knowledge of Torah Shebaal Peh which is necessary to correctly perform the mitzvos, “va’asisem osam,” and you actually follow through and do the mitzvos, then the brachos will flow.
All who study Torah are great and all who observe Hashem’s commandments are great, as are those who support them, but the epitome of human existence is the one who sits in a corner bound with Hashem’s Torah. Nobody knows about him, nobody sees him, and nobody is aware of him. He studies G-d’s word and it touches his soul.
Those who teach and guide and are an example for others to follow make our people special and glorified. They reached that level by engaging in sublime Torah study.
Klal Yisroel has special appreciation for ameilei Torah, who have always been viewed with special reverence. They are privileged to learn Torah not only in order to perform mitzvos and to teach, but for its own sake.
Shetihiyu ameilim baTorah is the hymn of our yeshivos and kollelim, which are islands of intense limud haTorah that produce exalted people, talmidei chachomim who the Chazon Ish referred to as “malochim b’demus bosor vodom,” angels in the guise of men.
The omeil baTorah inhabits a realm more exalted than any other.
The beloved Yerushalayimer maggid, Rav Mordechai Druk, once related that his uncle, Rav Amram Blau, was vigilant in his campaign against people he thought had veered from the proper path. Rav Amram would say, “If I see a breach in the sacred chain of our rabbeim, I go to battle, regardless of who it is that I am opposing. There is only one person I don’t challenge,” Rav Amram continued.
He recounted how his neighbor, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, had accepted an official state rabbinate position, a decision that Rav Amram felt was wrong. “I should really shout and protest, but I can’t,” he said.
Rav Amram explained that his wife and Rebbetzin Frank were friendly. Rav Tzvi Pesach’s rebbetzin shared that the financial situation in the home had gotten so bad that it affected her husband’s learning. “He suggested that I sell his bed linens, so that we could have a bit of money and he could learn,” remarked Rebbetzin Frank. “My husband won’t miss not having a bed, as he learns all night anyway.”
The Franks were so poor that it reached a point where Rav Tzvi Pesach had no money with which to purchase candles. How was he to learn at night?
“I saw him outside, with his Gemara, learning by the light of the moon throughout the night,” said Rav Amram. “Mit mentchen ken ich tcheppen. I can challenge mortals. Ubber mit malochim tcheppe ich nisht. I won’t do battle with angels.”
He was expressing that which the Chazon Ish would write about talmidei chachomim. They are malochim b’demus bosor vodom.
The Erev Shabbos shmuess at the home of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was a special time. The Mirrer rosh yeshiva would speak in English, unlike the rest of the week, and the audience included not only Mirrer talmidim, but also American and European bochurim from other yeshivos in Yerushalayim. Rather than offer prepared remarks, the rosh yeshiva would actually “shmooze,” reflecting on his week as if in conversation, sharing his impressions and insights.
One time, he told the bochurim about an opportunity he had that week. He needed direction regarding a halachic matter and went to speak to Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
“I came to Rav Elyashiv’s home and they let me into his room. He did not notice that I had entered, so he continued learning. I listened to him, and this is what he was saying. ‘Amar Abaye… Abaye says… Amar Rava. Voss zogst du Rava? Ah, ich her. Ubber vos enfert ihr Abaye. Nu, vos zogt ihr tzurik Rava? Abaye, how would you answer Rava’s argument? Nu, Rava, what would you say back to that? Ah, I hear. Abaye?”
The rosh yeshiva continued describing what he had seen and heard. Rav Elyashiv wasn’t outside looking in. He was inside the world of Torah.
All around us, there are heroes. Maybe it’s a seventeen-year-old bochur who didn’t understand his rebbi‘s shiur and chazers it one more time, even though he’s tired and wants to know if the Yankees won. Maybe it’s his father who spends his free time struggling over a Rashba. Maybe it’s the kollel yungerman in Bnei Brak who puts everything else out of his mind and immerses himself in the life-giving waters of a Ketzos.
They are the ones bringing the posuk‘s promised bounty to our midst.
Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger once addressed an evening of chizuk for lomdei Torah in Bnei Brak. What do you say to such people?
“I was with the Steipler Gaon when he was already eighty-two years old,” Rav Moshe Mordechai began, “and he told us, ‘Boruch Hashem, I’m learning Maseches Rosh Hashanah and I’m holding on daf chof zayin. Today is the first time I understood simple p’shat in a Gemara.”
“But the rebbi learned it so many times,” Rav Moshe Mordechai asked him.
“Yes,” the Steipler said simply, “I learned it tens of times, but I never understood it. Today, I did.”
“How,” Rav Moshe Mordechai asked his audience, “did the Steipler go on after the first time he didn’t understand it? Why did he continue?
“Because,” Rav Moshe Mordechai continued, “the Steipler knew that life is for sitting and learning. He had to learn and learn and learn. He had confidence and faith that if he would keep on learning, everything would become clear. At the age of 82, it did.”
The Steipler’s findings on that sugya live on in Kehillas Yaakov, Rosh Hashanah siman 21. And the lesson lives on in the hearts of hundreds of avreichim.
Rav Moshe Mordechai related that someone once approached the Chazon Ish and asked him how to become a lamdan. “To become a lamdan, you need two things,” the Chazon Ish replied. “You have to learn, and learn, and learn. And you need the Mamme’s Tehillim.”
The fellow persisted. “What about kishronos?”
“Men darft nisht. One doesn’t need to be particularly bright. With hard work, with toil and determination, people have become gedolim.”
A bochur once complained to the Chofetz Chaim that he worked very hard to learn, yet he didn’t feel that he would become a gadol baTorah. The Chofetz Chaim responded, “Where does it say that a person has an obligation to become a gadol baTorah? We are only obligated to learn Torah, to toil in Torah, to be ameilim in Torah.”
Of course it goes together. A person who is omeil in Torah receives the blessings of the Torah and continues to grow.
A mechanech in Bnei Brak related the story of a talmid, who faced terrible difficulty understanding learning. The bochur toiled, but was never able to reach the same levels of comprehension as his friends. Eventually, he fell into a deep depression.
The rebbi, pained by his talmid’s feelings of worthlessness and unable to convince the boy that his life had value, took the young man to speak to the Steipler Gaon. The boy shared his frustrations and grief. He described the difficulty he encountered in comprehending even the most basic ideas of the Gemara. The Steipler asked the bochur if there was any blatt Gemara that he felt he knew.
“Yes,” said the boy. “The first blatt in Nedorim.”
“I promise you,” said the aged giant, whose every word was measured and who exuded truth, “that when you learn that daf in Nedorim, it is as important to Hashem as the chiddushim of the illui in Ponovezh or the lamdan in Slabodka. He is listening to you.”
The young man was comforted as the Steipler repeated the assurance. The mechanech attested that, armed with the knowledge that his efforts had value, the bochur went back with his head held high and resumed his studies, not giving up until he succeeded in tasting the sweetness of Torah.
The Gemara in Maseches Chagigah (9) states that Bar Hei Hei asked Hillel what is meant by the posuk (Malachi 3:18) that says that le’asid lavo, the difference between the “oveid Elokim,” the one who served Hashem, and “asher lo avado,” the one who did not, will be noted. Is it not obvious to us the difference between the two? The posuk must be referring to something else.
Hillel responded that it refers to the difference between the person who reviews what he studied 100 times and the one who reviews the Torah he has learned 101 times.
“Is the fact that he didn’t review one more time a reason to call someone eino avado?” wondered Bar Hei Hei.
“Yes,” Hillel answered, bringing the example of the donkey-drivers in the market, where a journey of ten parsa’os costs one zuz, while a trip of eleven parsa’os costs two zuzim.
The Baal Hatanya explains the answer. A standard trip for a wagon driver is ten parsa’os. That is normal. Asking him to go eleven parsa’os is requesting that he go out of his comfort zone, stretching himself and extending himself beyond what he’s used to. Hence the higher price, because it isn’t just one more parsah. It is an entirely different trip.
Therein lies the secret of ameilus baTorah. The ultimate mitzvah is performed through serving Hashem that one extra time. When one pushes himself way beyond his comfort level and reaches inside and finds the strength for another blatt of Gemara, or another few minutes in the bais medrash, or one more chazarah, one enters that exalted realm.
Each and every one of us has that gift. It’s there for the taking. With a bit of spirit and determination, we can, even if only for a moment, enter that dimension the Chazon Ish describes, leaving the world of humans and touching the world of angels.
Shetihiyu ameilim baTorah. It is a way that a mortal can brush the heavens and merit the brachos found there.
Yisroel ve’Oraisa veKudsha Brich Hu chad hu. Hashem and the Torah and Am Yisroel are one. When you plug into Torah, you are plugging into Hashem. When you connect to Torah, you are connecting to Hashem and having a relationship with the Borei. What could be better?