A recurring concept in Rav Hutner’s writings on Shavu’os (Pachad Yitzchaq, no.s 5, 13, 40) is the idea that talmud Torah isn’t limited to sitting in front of a book.
Why do we only make birkhas haTorah once a day? Tosafos explain (Berakhos 11b) “she’eino miya’eish mida’ato, shekol sha’ah chayav lilmod — because it is never lost from his thought, because at all times he is obligated to learn.” Rav Hutner adds that Tosafos don’t just mean that because the obligation is constant. Rather, part of learning Torah is “lilmod al menas la’asos — learning in order to do”. Thus, a life lived according to the Torah is not a break in talmud Torah, but part of the fulfillment of the obligation.
He uses the same idea to explain what would seem like two extra words in the Rambam (Talmud Torah 13). If someone is in the middle of learning, and a mitzvah arises. If the mitzvah can be done by someone else, the person should not stop his learning. However, if it can not, either because no one around is capable, or because the mitzvah is incombent on this particular individual, then he should stop — “veyachazor lelimudo — and he should return to his study.” Why does the Rambam need to tell us that he should return to studying?
How the person acts when the mitzvah is complete tells us something about how he did the mitzvah. Stopping one’s learning is only permitted because it is lilmod al menas la’asos. If the mitzvah is being done as part of a life-long commitment to Torah, then of course the person would return to his study as soon as he is able.
The halakhah is that if someone forgot to say birkhas haTorah and said Ahavah Rabbah before Shema, he needn’t say birkhas haTorah. Ahavah Rabbah qualifies as a birkhas haTorah. How? The berakhah refers not only to learning Torah, but also to fulfilling mitzvos?
Again Rav Hutner explains that other mitzvos are not a break from talmud Torah, but rather are a fulfillment of lilmod al menas la’asos.
Last, he invokes the same idea to explain the words of Reish Laqish (Menachos 99). Commenting on the verse “asher shibarta — which you have broken”, Reish Laqish says that Hashem is praising Moshe for breaking them. And this is used to demonstrate the idea that “pe’amim shebitulo zu hi qiyumo — there are times that [Torah’s] nullification is its fulfillment”. Fulfilling the Torah’s ways is part of talmud Torah, even when that meant destroying the very Torah itself.
So far we discussed the concept of mitzvos, but Rav Hutner’s tendency toward breadth goes much further than that.
In Rav Hutner’s Igeros (pg. 84), he answers a student who felt like he was split, living a double life — a life of Torah and a secular life centered a career. Rav Hutner answered with a metaphor: If a person has a home, and in addition he takes a room in a hotel, he is living a double life. But if the person has a home that has two rooms, he is not living a double life, he is living a broad life.
By placing it all only one roof, there is a broad unity, not a split.
(This sentiment is strongly aligned with that of Rav Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz. But an analysis of the different ways different acharonim modeled this relationship is for another time.)
In Pachad Yitzchaq, Pesach (#69), Rav Hutner comments on the opening verse of “Shir haShirim asher liShlomo — A song of songs, which is Solomon’s”. Why is Shir haShirim called “of Shelomo’s” in a way that his other works, Mishlei and Qoheles, are not?
Rav Hutner describes the greatness of Shelomo’s generation was that it went beyond the usual celebratory event, the victory of good over evil that we find David praising in song. Rather, in Shelomo’s day there was also a victory of the secular by the holy. There was no truely secular, because everything served the holy.
This is a recurring thought in Rav Hutner’s thought — the role of “reshus” (the permissable, as opposed to the prohibited or the mandatory) and how does one sanctify it.
There are two ways to do so. The first is by using reshus to accomplish things that allow you to accomplish more qedushah. (This thought is also found in the introduction to Alei Shur, as a way to live a fully sacred life.)
The other is to see the secular world as a metaphor for the deeper truth. “Bekhol derakhakha da’eihu — know Him in all your ways.” Sleep could be simply a creature comfort, it could be a way to rest for a day of holy activities, and it could also be a metaphor through which we can understand the concept of techiyas hameisim (resurrection of the dead). This connection is made by E-lokai, neshamah shanasata bi. Upon waking up, we remember that Hashem will restore that soul after death.
Shir haShirim uses romantic love in this way, giving it as a way to understand the love between Hashem and His creation. Thus, it is more fully representative of the accomplishments of Shelomo’s time than his other works.
A life of Torah must include reshus, placing one’s second room under the same roof. Without which even the mitzvah of talmud Torah is itself incomplete. And that is why that student’s pursuit of a career did not necessitate his making a second birkhas haTorah.
Returning back to his letter to the student who felt like he lived a double life, Rav Hutner explains this using a powerful statement from Chazal. “Whoever lengthens the ‘echad‘ [of Shema], they lengthen for him his days.” This statement isn’t only true of how one says Shema, but is therefore also true of living the meaning of those words. Rav Hutner tells this student who is now a professional not to consider his career a distraction. Quite the contrary! Someone who lives a Torah life, and does so as broadly as possible, has the berakhah of earning a long life.
A very powerful message to take from Shavu’os.