For the Jews, There Was Light (ver. 2)
Related to the Ramban’s position, about holiness being about following the Torah’s ideals, and not stopping at the letter of its laws…
There is an enigmatic statement in the Talmud (Nedarim 81a, Koren editionÂ (Links to an external site.), original in bold, with translations of Rabbi Edin Steinsaltz’s explanatory insertions):
Ravina says:Â They are punishedÂ because they do not first recite a blessing over the TorahÂ before commencing their studies.Â As Rav Yehuda saidÂ thatÂ Rav said: What isÂ the meaning of thatÂ which is written: â€œWho is the wise man that may understand this,Â and who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken, that he may declare it, for what the land is perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passes throughâ€ (Jeremiah 9:11)?Â This matter,Â the question as to why Eretz Yisrael was destroyed,Â was asked of the Sages,Â i.e., â€œthe wise man,â€Â and of the prophets,Â â€œhe to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken,â€Â but they could not explain it.
The matter remained a mysteryÂ until the Holy One, Blessed be He, Himself explainedÂ why Eretz Yisrael was laid waste,Â as it is writtenÂ in the next verse:Â â€œAnd the Lord said: Because they have forsaken My TorahÂ which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked thereinâ€ (Jeremiah 9:12). It would appear thatÂ â€œhave not obeyed My voiceâ€ isÂ the same asÂ â€œnor walked therein.â€ Rav Yehuda saidÂ thatÂ Rav said:Â The expression â€œnor walked thereinâ€ meansÂ that they do not first recite a blessing over the Torah,Â and they are therefore liable to receive the severe punishments listed in the verse.
Note the quote of Jeremiah and the mention of the prophets being puzzled. They are discussing the destruction of the first Temple. Jeremiah witnessed its destruction. And prophecy ended centuries before the fall of the second Temple.
But the obvious question is: Really? The Temple destroyed, the commonwealth ended, uncountable people killed. For what? Because they didn’t say the blessing before studying Torah. I mean, it implies they were even studying Torah! The scale seems entirely off kilter.
However, the Talmud gives another reason for the destruction of the first Temple, one that doesn’t seem so surprising. Yoma 9b:
TheÂ ToseftaÂ continues with a discussion of the sins of the Jewish people over the generations:Â Due to whatÂ reasonÂ wasÂ theÂ First Temple destroyed?Â It was destroyedÂ due toÂ the factÂ that there were three mattersÂ that existedÂ inÂ the First Temple:Â Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed.…
However,Â considering that the people duringÂ the Second TempleÂ periodÂ were engaged in TorahÂ study, observance ofÂ mitzvot, and acts of kindness,Â and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple,Â why wasÂ the Second TempleÂ destroyed?Â It was destroyedÂ due toÂ the factÂ that there was wanton hatredÂ during that period. This comesÂ to teach you thatÂ the sin ofÂ wanton hatred is equivalent to the threeÂ severeÂ transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.
(Sin’atÂ chinam, which the Koren Edition translates as “wanton hatred”, and is often translated as “baseless hatred” literally means “free hatred”. I like the translation “pointless hatred”, as it includes even hatred that has a valid cause, but I am carrying it around for not useful purpose.)
Okay, so destruction of a society of idolatrous lecherous murderers seems just. And why would G-d want their worship at His Temple? Yes, that all fits.
So what’s this about not saying the blessing before studying Torah?
I think the sages traced things back to the first point of departure. How did we get to the point where society had rampant idolatry, sexual immorality and murder? It all started when people studied Torah without the blessing first. In other words, they didn’t bring the right attitude to their Torah study.
And to recall something we saw in section 2.1 — Rava is twice quoted in the Talmud as teaching that someone who “goes to the left” can turn the Torah into a poison. Torah study and observance is not a guarantee. They give us a tool-set; but we have to choose to use the tool-set for Hashem’s aims. Torah can be a medicine or a poison — it is up to how we use it.
Going back to our opening Ramban… The culture of the First Temple stopped paying attention to the purposes of the Torah, Hashem’s Plan for our lives, and even their Torah study became part of a culture laden with the worst sins.
Now let’s look at a verse in theÂ megillahÂ (Esther 8:16, which may be familiar from Havdalah):
×œÖ·×™Ö¼Ö°×”×•Ö¼×“Ö´×™×Â ×”Ö¸×™Ö°×ªÖ¸×” ××•Ö¹×¨Ö¸×” ×•Ö°×©×‚Ö´×žÖ°×—Ö¸×” ×•Ö°×©×‚Ö¸×©×‚Ö¹×Ÿ ×•Ö´×™×§Ö¸×¨×ƒ
The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.
Which the Talmud expounds (Megillah 16b, I will gain be eliding the talmud’s proof-texts):
Rav Yehuda said: â€œLightâ€; thisÂ is referring to theÂ TorahÂ that they once again studied….Â â€œGladnessâ€ [simá¸¥a]; thisÂ is referring toÂ the FestivalsÂ that they once again observed….Â â€œJoyâ€ [sasson]; thisÂ is referring toÂ circumcision,Â as they once again circumcised their sons.Â Â â€œHonorâ€; this isÂ referring toÂ phylacteries,Â which they once again donned.Â And it was taughtÂ in aÂ baraita:Â Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: ThisÂ is referring toÂ the phylacteries worn on the head.Â Haman had banned the fulfillment of all the mitzvot mentioned, but upon Hamanâ€™s demise the Jews returned to their observance.
But this teaching is also cryptic. If the megillah wanted to say “And the Jews again had Torah study, the Jewish festivals, circumcision, and tefillin” why didn’t it just say so? Why the cryptic, if poetic, language?
The story of Purim happens around the time of the building of the Second Temple. Exactly how the two relate involves thorny questions of dating the whole period. But there wouldn’t have been a Second Temple if we hadn’t fixed the problems of the first.
Which means that the flaw to be fixed wasn’t the letter of the law, but the attitude toward the law.
So, had the megillah just said that the Jews now had Torah, holidays, beris milah and tefillin, it wouldn’t have made the desired point. Yes, the Jews went back to Torah study. But now they made the blessing first. The Torah was a light for them. The holidays were taken up again not just as dry observances, but with simchah. Circumcisions were occasions of joy and doning tefillin was done with a feeling of glory.
This is, after all, Nachmanides’ key to holiness.
And as the verse concludes…
SO MAY IT BE FOR US!
(This is the version I sent myÂ webinar va’ad on Sunday, written to emphasize points we were studying from Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction and Widen Your Tent. Version 1 focuses more on Purim’s relationship to Shavuos.)