How They Saved Torah Shebe’al Peh
Perfection cannot exist in a vacuum. If I think that I can
reach perfection without perfecting others, I have missed the whole point.
That was the problem with Noach. “Noach tamim haya
b’dorosav, v’yesh dorshim l’gnai.” It is a criticism of Noach that he was
“perfect in his generation.” For how could he consider himself perfect in the
generation of the Mabul? Certainly, others were imperfect. And since we’re all
in the same boat (if not the same ark), then Noach was imperfect, too. He should
have felt that he was seriously lacking something if the whole rest of his
generation deserved to be destroyed.
Regarding one who learns only for himself, and not to teach
others, it says in Avos, “If you’ve learned much Torah, al tachzik tova
l’atzmecha.” We usually translate it as, “Don’t be haughty about it, don’t
think you did something great, because that’s what you were created for.” But
there’s another way to understand it. Don’t hold the good for yourself, don’t
keep it just for yourself. You’ve benefited from all this Torah you’ve learned,
share it with others.
Likewise, the Gemora identifies Torah shel chesed with
Torah that is shared with others. What is Torah that is not chesed? Torah
that is not shared.
Chazal describe someone who goes from the Beis HaKeneses to
the Beis HaMidrash as going from chail to chail, strength to strength.
The Beis HaKeneses is a communal place—for tefilah b’tsibur, for public
meetings. One could think that a Beis HaMidrash, on the other hand, is a place
where you go for your own personal edification. Even though there may be others
there learning, too; but it’s every man for himself. Chazal are telling us that
you have to link it in that sense to the Beis HaKeneses, because both exist for
the benefit of the community. Torah is also a communal possession.
The first and seventh day of Pesach and the day of Shavuos
are the three yomim tovim of this period. They parallel the mishna in
Avos: Chaviv ha’adam hanivra b’tselem Elokim…Chavivim Yisrael, sh’nikra Banim
LaMakom. Each human being is precious because he is created in God’s image;
the Jewish people are precious because they are God’s children and because they
received the instrument with which God created the world. First a person has to
worry about himself, he has to eat. Spiritually, too, he has to eat and sustain
himself with Torah before he can help anyone else. That’s the first day of
Pesach. Each Jew on that day reached a level of tselem Elokim, but on a
personal, individual level. On the seventh day, they came to a greater
understanding, that they have to be part of the project of building G-d’s
kingdom for the rest of the world. Malchuscha rau baaneicha. They
realized that they are not just in it to make themselves perfect. On
Shavuos, they received the Torah, the instrument to perfect the world.
What was the purpose of the Korban HaOmer, (brought on
the second day of Pesach)? It permitted you to eat of the new crop, you
personally. You could eat to sustain yourself physically and spiritually. We
then count toward Shavuos, when we bring another korban—the shtai halechem—which
permits a new crop. But this time not for individual consumption, but for the
benefit of the whole world. Thus, the counting of the Omer is a counting from
personal perfection to collective perfection.
Chazal say that one who wants to become rich, should daven to
the north; one who wants to become wise, should daven to the south. This,
because the menorah was in the south, and the shulchan in the north of
the heichal. But the shulchan had a dual connotation. It
represented not only the material wealth of kings, but also the crown of Torah.
But Torah in a self-sustaining sense. The menorah, however, symbolized the Torah
shining forth to others. That’s why, referring to the menorah, Chazal do not
say, “harotzeh lehitchakem,” who wants to become wise, but “lahichkim,”
to make others wise.
The sin of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples is that they didn’t give
each other proper kavod, meaning that they failed to share with each
other the kavod of Torah. And it’s clear that that was their chet.
After they died, the world was desolate. Until Rabbi Akiva came to the
Rabosainu ShebeDarom, of the South, and he taught them and told them not to
repeat the mistake of their predecessors. The Gemora says that they filled Eretz
Yisrael with Torah. They went and taught everybody. That’s why they were called
Rabosainu ShebeDarom, because they looked to the menorah in the south,
for the Torah that shines out to others. And that’s how they saved Torah