Saturday, April 01, 2023

Recently, I experienced the misfortune of driving behind a garbage truck on a two-lane road for over a mile. It was a very long mile. I admit, my patience was tested. Finally, it veered off to a side street and I was free. Nonetheless, driving down the highway miles away, I could still smell the stench of the garbage.

This brings home an important lesson: the actions we take leave a scent that remains with us long after the action is taken. This is true, be it for good or for bad. We are indeed fortunate to be given the Torah with so many mitzvos in which to involve ourselves, to create a pleasant scent even long after the mitzvah is completed.

Parshas Va’eschanan recounts the giving of the second luchos (tablets)—the Ten Commandments—to Moshe. Before Hashem gave the Torah to the Jews, He first offered it to all the other nations (Rashi in Zos Habracha). Hashem offered it to Edom, who inquired what is written in the Torah. Hashem replied, “One may not kill.” “Forget it,” replied Edom, “we exist through murder.” Next Hashem offered the Torah to the nation of Yishmael, in which the same dialogue ensued and Hashem declared, “One may not commit adultery.” Yishmael also turned down the offer as this commandment was contradictory to their lifestyle. Yet, we know that all the nations of the world are commanded and obligated to keep the Seven Noahide Laws, which include “Do not kill” and “Do not commit adultery.” Since Edom and Yishmael were already bound to these laws, how could they use them as pretexts to turn down the Torah?

There is a Chazal that compares the Torah to bread. Just as physical food nourishes the body, Torah is the spiritual food that nourishes the soul. Our food is digested, becoming protein, fat cells and energy within us—everything we need. A similar process is true with Torah, explains Rav Gedalia Schorr. A person who toils in learning will have Torah become part of him. This enlightens us about an entirely new realm of what observing Torah and mitzvos accomplishes. Torah is not just an instruction manual of what we should and should not do; rather, it’s a sustaining force within us when we learn it well and incorporate it within us. Some people learn Torah to fulfill the mitzvah of talmud Torah—Torah study. But the person who is truly engrossed in Torah enters into a different dimension. The Torah and he become one.

Let’s not forget: we are not a computer that stores the knowledge of Torah in our heads. If that were true, then only the most gifted minds would be commanded with Torah study. It’s a different element entirely. It’s not about retention, nor about volume. The Torah’s purpose is to transform us to be better people. It’s not an easy job.

Rabbi Wolbe would say, “No accomplishment is achieved on its own.” While it takes focus and effort, the Torah is the instrument that molds us. This explains another Chazal that compares Torah to fire. Fire has the ability to soften metal so it can be bent and shaped. Similarly, the Torah molds and shapes our character and soul.

The Alshich notes the only difference between the first and second luchos was that the first luchos were hewn by Hashem and the second carved out by Moshe. However, the words were written by Hashem on both. To have the words of Torah written on ourselves, we need to carve, mold and shape ourselves to be a vessel worthy of having the Torah written on us and incorporated within us. When we apply ourselves, the Torah takes our “raw” self and refines it, like fire softening metal.

This explains the Torah being refused by Edom, Yishmael and the other nations. True, they were already prohibited from killing and adultery, but those are specific commandments. However, if Hashem would give them the Torah, that would mean they would have to transform their essence to abhor these behaviors. That is something they were not willing to do.

There are three foundational qualities that all Jews possess: to be compassionate, ashamed and benevolent, all of which we received at Har Sinai. These qualities all come together with observance of the Torah. Our focus, therefore, needs to be on integrating the lessons and values the Torah teaches us until they are synthesized within us. It’s a continuing process that constantly nourishes and betters us, making our lives more meaningful and enjoyable.

The world expects a higher level of conduct from the Jew because Hashem gave us the Torah with the mandate and the ability to refine ourselves; it is our gift, our obligation and our salvation.

By Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim

 Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Bergenfield, Paramus, Rockaway and Fair Lawn. He initiated and continues to lead a full multi-level gemara learning program in the evenings, gives halacha and hashkafah shiurim on Shabbat and, more recently, has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly Beit Medrash program with in-depth chavruta learning in both Livingston and Springfield.


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