If Torah is to be Torah, it has
to make an impression on those who study it. That could be what Chazal mean when
they say that “If someone tells you there is wisdom among the nations, believe
him; but if he tells you that there is Torah among them, don’t believe him.”
Bertrand Russell was a professor of ethics at City College in
New York in the 1940s. At that time, he was an avowed communist, advocated free
love, and was not exactly a paragon of virtue. The ethics committee of the
college called him in and said, “Professor Russell, we have a problem with you.
You teach ethics in this institution, but your personal conduct here on campus
has not been ethical.” He said to them, “Listen, twenty years ago I taught
mathematics in a college in England, and not once did the ethics committee there
call me in and tell me, ‘Professor Russell, we have a problem with you. You
teach mathematics in this institution, but you’re not a square, a circle or a
parallelogram.’ I don’t have to be what I teach, I just have to teach it.”
That’s wisdom; it doesn’t necessarily have to have an affect
on the way you live your life. There were very great and talented people, both
Jews and non-Jews who had tremendous wisdom, but their personal lives left a lot
to be desired. Now that doesn’t mean that every person who has secular knowledge
is necessarily a worthless bum. That’s not true, either. There were very fine
professors whose teachings did influence their lives. The point is that it
did not have to. Wisdom can exist in a moral vacuum; Torah cannot. The
Midrash says that divrei Torah are like fire. Just as fire makes an impression,
so divrei Torah make an impression.
At about the turn of the century, when the haskalah was very
strong, there was a certain very gifted bochur. He was the pride of the yeshiva
where he learned in Lita, learning in a special shiur created for him and the
rosh yeshiva’s son. That is, until the day they caught him writing his
chidushei Torah while smoking a cigar on Shabbos. They asked him to leave
the yeshiva. Subsequently, he became one of the leaders of the Conservative
movement. He was a genius, but it was chochmah, not Torah, since it obviously
didn’t make an impression.
It says in Pirkei Avos, “So-and-so used to say…” But it
doesn’t just mean that he used to say this particular thing all the time,
because in Chapter 4 it says “Shmuel Ha-Katan used to say…” and then all it does
is quote a posuk in Mishlei, “At the downfall of your enemy don’t rejoice…” And
that’s the whole mishnah. Very nice, I should also be in Pirkei Avos. “Zev Leff
used to say, ‘Bereishis bara Elokim…” What it really means is not just that he
used to say it, he used to live it. His whole personality embodied that
posuk in Mishlei.
It could be for that reason the gemora says that it’s foolish
for people to stand up for a sefer Torah, and not stand up for a talmid chocham.
What’s foolish about it? The sefer Torah is dead ink, dead parchment, locked up
in the aron kodesh. It’s purpose is that some human being should learn from it
and become a living sefer Torah. So it’s foolish to stand up for the dead sefer
and not the living one.
HaShem gave us a Torah that is not all written. One of the
reasons is that if it were all written, and nothing transmitted orally, people
could make the mistake of thinking that the ikar of Torah is knowledge, like any
other form of knowledge. But the Oral Torah can only be learned by coming into
contact with a talmid chocham, someone who is a living sefer Torah, whose whole
life embodies the teachings of Torah, so you will know that Torah is not just a
conglomeration of facts, it is meant to be lived.
Perhaps that will also answer the question: Why do we count
the omer to prepare for Matan Torah, if we don’t have the text? They said
na’aseh v’nishmah, so they didn’t know beforehand what the Torah contained.
How can you prepare for something when you don’t know what it is?
The answer is that they were not preparing for the receipt of
knowledge. Torah is something that has to make an impression. Therefore, you
have first to make sure that you are capable of receiving the impression. Some
materials, like asbestos, are impervious to fire. You can’t come to Shavuos like
asbestos, made of material that the fire of Torah cannot penetrate. So you have
to work on your character; obstinacy, haughtiness, and all those things that
would impede the Torah’s making an impression on you. That is the work we have
to do during Sefiras HaOmer.