Torah and Life
Adapted by Yitzchak Barth with Reuven Ziegler
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Many people assume there is a contrast – if not conflict – between Torah and "life." In this view, "life" includes all the practical, "serious" spheres whose participants contribute to the world and help to develop it. As opposed to them is the "Torah," with which young men who have not yet moved on to "real life" amuse themselves. Unfortunately, echoes of this view are even to be heard within the beit midrash. Many yeshiva students do not relate to Torah study as "life," but rather as preparation and training for life.
In the chapter on the word "life" in his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis points out that when a person speaks about "real life," he refers to those elements of life which he values most highly. Thus, for example, many people relate to a business deal as an expression of "real life," while writing poetry or engaging in philosophy are pursuits not deemed worthy of such a dignified title. Lewis claims that the source of this mistaken distinction is to be found in the limited minds that contend that serious, adult people should engage only in the type of pursuits in which they themselves are engaged. In his view, the distinction is unacceptable, since it means that all spheres of activity are removed from the category of "real life" except those that aid in the accumulation of property or in the attainment of social status. All the remaining spheres of occupation are written off as "play" or "daydreaming."
Lewis's analysis of the prevailing attitude towards spheres of secular thought is all the more applicable when it comes to engaging in Torah. Many Jews believe that the Torah is relevant in a constricted, limited world, and they attempt to discover at which points this world coincides with "life" – the world in which they themselves are engaged. In many cases people think this way even if they are not aware of it. The frequently posed question, "What are you going to do when you leave yeshiva and go out into the big wide world?" actually reflects an attitude that regards Torah as a sphere external to life. Obviously, such a view – in which utilitarian activities take precedence over the realm of thought - is deficient from any self-respecting religious and spiritual point of view. Of course, we value "yishuvo shel olam," developing the world, and the people involved in this are certainly worthy of praise. But we must be firm in our opposition to the view that engaging in "divrei chokhma," Torah and matters of the spirit, is not "real life."
A well-known mishna teaches that both the practical and the intellectual spheres are essential; neither can exist without the other. "If there is no worldly sustenance (literally: flour) – there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no worldly sustenance" (Avot 3:17). The mishna does not mean to equate the significance of these two spheres. Man was not created in order to grind flour, nor to fill his belly with bread. Rather, he was created in order to serve God – including the pursuit of Torah, "for it is for this purpose that you were created" (Avot 2:8). Like the famous assertion of the French playwright Moliere, that "one must eat in order to live, and not live in order to eat," we believe that we must work and eat in order to engage in Torah, rather than engaging in Torah in order to eat! Torah is not detached from life; on the contrary, we declare daily that Torah "is our life and the length of our days." This means that engaging the Torah is the crux, the essence, the most important part of life.
At the end of Avot de-Rabbi Natan (34:10), the beraita lists ten entities that are called "life": God is called "life," Israel are called "life," the Torah is called "life," as well as the righteous, the Garden of Eden, the Tree, Eretz Yisrael, deeds of kindness, Torah sages, and water. Even the most cursory review of this list reveals that most of the things that are called "life" belong to the realm of the spirit. Some of them are connected to the practical world, and some even belong to that world exclusively, but this list unquestionably suggests that "true life" is found, first and foremost, in the world of the spirit, the Torah, and sanctity. The reasoning behind this assertion is clear: King David defined life as the connection with the Source of life: "For with You lies the source of life; by Your light we shall see light" (Tehillim 34:10), and the Torah is the most central and direct channel of connection to the Creator. The Torah connects man with God, and therefore occupation with Torah is the principal channel of life.
At the conclusion of two different discussions, the Gemara quotes Rabbi Tarfon's exclamation after Rabbi Akiva won an argument between them: "Akiva, anyone who separates himself from you is, as it were, separating himself from life!" (Kiddushin 66b; Zevachim 13a). Ironically, the subjects under discussion in each of these two debates are far from practical. In Massekhet Kiddushin the debate concerns matters of ritual purity and impurity, while in Massekhet Zevachim the Tannaim discuss receiving the blood of sacrificial animals. The impression conveyed by the Gemara is unequivocal: it is Torah itself that is life, and hence there is no need to seek artificial points of contact between these two spheres.
Since the Torah is called "life" and engagement in it is a central occupation of our lives, it is clear that yeshiva study should not be regarded merely as a preparation for the rest of life. Every moment in which a person is not engaged in Torah is a moment wasted, and represents a loss in its own right – over and above the loss for the future, in that the person is not preparing for the rest of his life. When King David asked God to allow him to die on Erev Shabbat rather than on Shabbat day, his request was refused: "Better for Me one day that you sit and engage in Torah than a thousand burnt sacrifices that Shelomo, your son, is destined to offer upon the altar before Me" (Shabbat 30a). Obviously, the Torah that David learned on the eve of his death was not preparing him for anything. The sole significance of those hours on Shabbat eve was the learning itself, altogether unconnected to "preparation for the rest of life." Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes decisively that those hours of learning, not preparing him for anything, were preferable in God's eyes to the thousand sacrifices that Shelomo offered on the day of the dedication of the altar!
Just as Torah study has independent importance in God's eyes, we should view it in the same way. The mishna teaches, "Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all of the life of the World to Come" (Avot 4:17) – even if it is one single hour, in which the person is not preparing himself for the rest of his life. Beyond the fact that the period of yeshiva study prepares students for the rest of their lives, it is a period of intensive life in its own right – filled with Torah and closeness to God. The purpose of life is to cleave to God, and the road to this cleaving passes through the beit midrash.
We must be careful not to downplay the importance of engaging in Torah by assigning an exaggerated significance to worldly concerns. The Torah's definition of "life" is unequivocal: "And you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, this day" (Devarim 4:4). Cleaving to God is itself "life," and the place where this "life" is realized is in the beit midrash. For this reason, King David says of the Temple – the focal point of cleaving to God – "For there God commanded the blessing, eternal life" (Tehillim 133:3). It is specifically within the beit midrash, the place where we cut ourselves off from the external world and devote all our energies to achieving an intensive closeness to God – it is specifically here that the blessing of eternal life is invoked.
Next week we shall explore the significance of the concepts of "a Torah of life" and "a life of Torah."
(This sicha was delivered in Summer 5761 .)