Monday, November 21, 2011

Not by smoke and not by fire...

The fourth perek begins with the famous statement by Shimon HaTzadik: “On the three things the world stands—on Torah, on worship/sacrifice, and on acts of loving kindness.” The first area explored is the pillar of Torah. To prove that the world does indeed depend on Torah, the text quotes a passage from Hoshea: “Chesed chafatzti v’lo zavach, v’da’at Elohim me’olot, I desire kindness over sacrifices and knowledge of God over offerings.”

Although Torah exceeds them both, an olah, we are told, is better than a zevach because an olah is completely burned up for God, while part of a zevach is burnt and part is eaten by the Kohanim. Although an olah is preferable because it is exclusively for God, God apparently doesn’t desire burnt offerings. The difference between a zevach and an olah brings up a very basic question: Should we derive a benefit from the mitzvot we do, or should they be done for God’s sake alone? Despite the text’s apparent preferences for olot, the idea of a zevach is much more appealing to me, as it is a ritual act that creates a partnership between God and people. There is something that feels very noble about an olah, about setting something on fire and giving it entirely to God. But there is also something impersonal about it, something that makes it feel like a completely one-sided relationship. The zevach represents creating a relationship with God that takes into account both the self and the community.

Written after the destruction of the Temple, the adamant assertion the rabbis of Avot d’Rabbi Natan repeatedly make concerning the importance of Torah study over sacrifices feels like an attempt at consolation. For them, as for us, comparing zevachim, olot, and Torah study is essentially a moot point, as only one of these is actually an option. The most interesting and most compelling point, in my opinion, made about this subject reads, “V’talmud Torah chavivah lifnei ha’makom me’olot, lefi sh’im adam lamed Torah, yodea da’ato shel makom, And God finds learning Torah sweeter than offerings because if a man learns Torah, he knows the will of God.” Perhaps it is precisely the partnership/relationship of learning that makes the study of Torah greater than both types of sacrifices. When learning this, I was reminded of the words Rav Adin Steinsaltz shared with us this summer: “[When studying Torah,] I am searching for the truth. It is a connection of my mind with His mind and my attempt to understand…Learning is a kind of communication. The learning is a togetherness not done by any external act. We are building together.”

It’s interesting to note that, according to this text, the only requirement for knowing God’s opinion or will is learning Torah. Perhaps this is to say that the will of Hashem is Talmud Torah, not just the actions associated with halachah, and that any halachic decision that is arrived at through serious and honest Talmud Torah is one that aligns with God’s desire.

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