Last week, we discussed creating a relationship with Torah through its study. This relationship can be described as “ownership,” but it is an active, intimate type of ownership. We immerse our bodies and souls into the words on the page, lose sleep contemplating the ideas behind those words, and ultimately contribute to the eternal process of talmud Torah while maintaining a sense of humility. It is truly an awe-inspiring experience.
But Torah study goes even further.
As one of my teachers used to emphasize, it is easy to become engrossed in the intellectual side of Torah study but Yirmiyahu (9:22-23) reminds us not to get too caught up in our own wisdom: “השכל וידע אותו” – not just sechel, intellect, but that which leads to yediat Hashem, an intimate knowledge of G-d, is a true cause for celebration.
The navi goes on to emphasize knowledge of what G-d wants from us in His world: chesed, mishpat, and tzedakah – kindness, justice, and righteousness. But the first step is using our minds to connect with Him.
Among the many complex elements to that connection, one we might like to think about this time of year is the metaphor of a bride and groom. For instance, the Mishna in Taanis 4:8 portrays the day the Torah was given as the day of our chuppah (based on Shir Hashirim 3:11). The Gemara (Berachot 57a) connects a similar metaphor to the very pasuk we quoted last week: “’Moshe commanded us the Torah, an inheritance for the congregation of Yaakov’ – don’t read מורשה (inheritance), but מאורסה (betrothed).”
The Gemara’s interpretation differentiates the words “inheritance” and “betrothed,” but perhaps the two readings of the verse can shed light on each other.
At a recent presentation on “identity” by my daughter’s seventh-grade class, several students shared objects that had belonged to family members and discussed the meaning those objects held for them. In one case, the item was a simple watch. Her generation had never known the owner, and this plain watch took on meaning because it offered a tangible way to feel connected to him as a real person with a real impact on their lives.
Her presentation highlighted the potential for an inheritance to help one person develop a connection with another, a sense that they know each other. One might see an inheritance as a piece of property, detached from the original owner – or one might relate to it as a treasured keepsake, choosing to use it daily as part of a concerted effort to get to know the original owner. And in essence, the betrothal period represents two individuals’ commitments to learn about each other, preparing for living their entire lives wrapped up with one another.
In the case of Torah, we do not simply memorialize the One who bequeathed this property to us. When we engage in talmud Torah, we are building an intimate relationship with Him. And although we “married” Him centuries ago at Har Sinai, in a sense we remain “betrothed,” forever in the initial stages of our relationship with so much still to learn about each other. The betrothal is our heritage; throughout the generations, we have a constant opportunity to get to know G-d. He is “ready and waiting” for us to claim and develop our relationship with Him through the inheritance that similarly awaits our claim (as in Avos 6:6).
Rambam discusses this process in a beautiful discussion of the mitzvah to love G-d, a mitzvah that is a key part of any bride/groom relationship but that presents obvious challenges when it comes to a non-physical Being whose very existence we have trouble comprehending. Based on a midrash, Rambam explains that Torah study offers a path:
The third [positive] mitzvah is that He commanded us regarding love of Him… that we think and contemplate His commandments and His statements and His actions, until we comprehend Him and experience the ultimate pleasure in comprehending Him – and this is the love which is obligatory. And the language of Sifrei: It is said, “and love Hashem, your G-d” – I don’t know how to love the Omnipresent! So the Torah teaches, “these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” – for through this, you will recognize He Who spoke and brought the world into being.
(I also recommend Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah chapters 2-4 for a beautiful discussion of getting to know G-d through nature, and the love and awe engendered by that process.)
Immersive Torah study, then, is not just a way to gain ownership of Torah in an intellectual sense, nor just fulfillment of a technical obligation. It is a vehicle through which we deepen our knowledge of, and develop an emotional relationship with, its original Owner.
Rabbi Mordechai Zev Ettinger offers a beautiful insight into the blessing we recite over Torah study
In my humble opinion… according to what we discussed at length above… that this blessing on Torah is purely a blessing of thanksgiving to the Omnipresent, for the Torah that is given to us…. And even the fact that one blesses with the language of “and He commanded us,” it does not fall on the specific mitzvah of his learning in the moment, but is rather thanksgiving that He commanded us to learn Torah [in general] … (Shiltei Giborim siman 47)
As many scholars have pointed out, the blessing is not phrased in terms of a mitzvah to learn Torah but expresses our appreciation for the opportunity to be involved in Torah, to engage with it always and deeply. It might be a commandment, but it is also an opportunity for which we are eternally grateful.
How fortunate we are that we are that both our Torah inheritance and the One who bequeathed it to us are alive and well, waiting for us to engage with them towards building a deeper understanding and a lifelong relationship.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org. She is also Editor-At-Large at Deracheha: womenandmitzvot.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.