“For this commandment [the Torah –see Rashi 30:14] that I command you today, it is not obscured from you and it is not distant. It is not in the heavens, to say: Who will ascend for us to the heavens and take it for us, and communicate it to us, that we will perform it? It is not across the sea, to say: Who will cross for us to the other side of the sea and take it for us and communicate it to us, that we will perform it? Rather the matter is very near to you in your mouth and in your heart to perform it.” (Devarim 30:11-14)

“For they are a source of life for those who find them, and they provide healing for all one’s flesh.” (Proverbs 4:22)

In discussing Moshe’s assertion to the Israelites that the Torah is to be found in close proximity, the Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 88:4) cites the above verse from Proverbs and expounds upon it. There are two parts to King Solomon’s description of the benefits of learning Torah. Firstly, they “are a source of life for those who find them” and secondly, “they provide healing for all one’s flesh.” The Midrash begins with the second aspect, noting that there are several verses that address the ‘medicinal’ power of Torah study. “Rabbi Chiya taught: They are a balm for the eyes as it states (Psalms 19:9), “The precepts of the Lord are upright, gladdening the heart. The commandments of the Lord are clear, enlightening the eyes.” They are an ointment for a wound, as it states (Proverbs 3:8), “It will be healing for your navel”. They are a potion for your innards as it states (ibid), “and an elixir for your bones.” I do not believe Rabbi Chiya is advocating Torah study as a remedy for eyes, wounds or sore bones. For such ailments, one must visit a doctor. Rather, he is addressing a condition of general malaise and lethargy that sometimes overcomes a person. One feels unmotivated, uninspired and apathetic. When that occurs, the best medicine is Torah study. It activates the brain; it appeals to the emotions and lifts one’s spirits. I have often engaged in Torah study when I have been in a “funk” and I find that I feel physically stronger and emotionally better after the experience.

The next aspect of the words of Torah is that they provide life “for those who find them (motzeihem)”. Here the Midrash employs a number of clever wordplays. The words of Torah provide life to those who say them aloud (motzian m’piv). One must not read the Torah passage one is studying in an undertone or in one’s mind; rather one must enunciate the words. The Midrash records an incident of a star disciple of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov who had an excellent and quick grasp of the material he was studying. He once took ill and forgot everything. The Midrash ascribes his forgetfulness to his failure to recite the words of Torah aloud when studying. It was only after his teacher prayed for him that he was able to remember what he had forgotten. When one visits a library, one finds a quiet, tranquil setting. However, when one visits a Beit Midrash or yeshiva, the noise can be deafening. Study partners are arguing at the top of their voices and people, sitting alone, are reading the words of the Talmud aloud. It can take some getting used to! But this has always been the way of Torah study. Our sages believed very strongly that saying the words aloud has a great impact on one’s understanding and retention of the material.

The next wordplay is that the words of Torah bring life to those who make them available to others (motzian l’acherim). The mitzvah of Torah study is to learn and to teach. We have no right to keep the wisdom of Torah to ourselves. It is the heritage of every Jew and must be shared. This principle is so fundamental that it appears in the Shema, the creed of Judaism (Devarim 6:7), “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children…”

The final wordplay is that the words of Torah bring life to those who conclude them (mamtzih otan, “extract every drop”). This means that one must make a concerted effort to fulfil every mitzvah. Of course, there is no single Jew who can fulfil all 613 mitzvoth. Some apply only to Cohanim, some only to Leviim, some only to men, others, just to women and yet, others apply only under unique circumstances. Nevertheless, one should seek to perform every mitzvah that is applicable to him/her. And the first step in that process is to learn what they are. The Rambam composed his Sefer HaMitzvot in which he lists the 248 positive mitzvoth and the 365 negative mitzvoth. The anonymous Sefer HaChinuch did likewise, except that he listed them in the order they appear in the Torah and he provided a rationale for each mitzvah. The Chofetz Chaim composed a booklet entitled Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar in which he enumerates the mitzvoth that can be fulfilled today in the absence of the Temple. The latter two works are available in English and make for fascinating reading. With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, now is the time to start studying Torah more regularly and observing the mitzvoth with more passion.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!

Rabbi Liebenberg

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