Tonight’s vaad was based on the sefer Orchos Yosher by R’ Chaim Kanievsky.
The gemara at the end of Mesechta Sanhedrin tells of many Torah scholars who were very wicked people despite their great wisdom in Torah. The purpose of those stories is to demonstrate that knowledge of Torah is no guarantee that a person will perform good deeds. A deed is defined as “good” if it follows the dictates of the Torah.
How can we ensure that our learning of Torah will make us good people? The answer to this question can be found in the commentary of the Medrash Shmuel to a mishnah in Pirkei Avos.
The Medrash Shmuel notes a contradiction between a baraisah in Mesechta Kiddushin and a famous mishnah in Pirkei Avos. A baraisah in Mesechta Kiddushin states emphatically that Torah study takes precedence over performing good deeds since Torah study automatically leads a person to the performance of good deeds. On the other hand, a famous mishnah in Pirkei Avos tells us that it is possible for a person to have great wisdom in Torah and at the same time not perform its dictates. To quote the words of the mishnah verbatim: “If a person’s Torah wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his Torah wisdom will not endure.” How can these two sources be reconciled?
The Medrash Shmuel offers a profound insight into the aforementioned mishnah in Pirkei Avos that clearly reconciles the apparent contradiction. The Medrash Shmuel notes that the mishnah describes the individual not as someone who doesn’t perform mitzvos altogether, but rather as someone whose good deeds are merely “exceeded” by his Torah wisdom. In other words, he only performs those commandments of the Torah that appeal to his sense of reason. His deficiency is that he does not really believe in the Divine origin of the Torah. Therefore, his Torah wisdom does not have any real value.
The proper attitude that one must have when he learns Torah is that he is learning the Torah that was transmitted directly by G-d at Mount Sinai, and therefore it is true, and therefore he will perform its dictates whether or not they appeal to his sense of reason. The baraisah in Mesechta Kiddushin is dealing with a person who learns Torah with such an attitude.
This profound insight of the Medrash Shmuel sheds light on five other questions:
Pirkei Avos begins with a detailed description of how our mesorah was transmitted from Moshe Rabbeinu at Mount Sinai throughout the rest of the generations. Why are those details so important? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to begin the Mesechta with the basic principles of Judaism?
The gemara in the first mishnah in Perek Chelek in Sanhedrin tells us that a person who denies the Divine origin of the Torah has no share in the next world. What is the significance of this sin?
The gemara in Mesechta Avodah Zarah tells us that one who learns but doesn’t perform mitzvos is comparable to a person who doesn’t have a G-d. What is the connection between these two qualities?
In the famous story of Chanukah, the Greeks had no intention to exterminate the Jewish people. They merely wanted to destroy the sanctity of the Torah. What was the significance of this conflict?
The gemara tells us in Mesechta Kiddushin and Mesechta Chagigah that Elisha ben Avuya left the Jewish faith after he saw two disturbing incidents. In one incident he saw a young man die a tragic death as a result of following his father’s command to perform the great mitzvah of sending away the mother bird before taking its young. In the other incident he saw the tongue of a great Torah scholar being dragged in the mouth of a dog or a pig. Elisha ben Avuya was convinced that such tragedies and atrocities could not take place if there was really a G-d in the world and therefore rejected his faith. What do we learn from these incidents?
The significance of Pirkei Avos beginning with a detailed description of the Torah’s transmission from Mount Sinai is to emphasize that Torah study only has value if a person recognizes its Divine origin.
The significance of the sin of denying the Divine origin of the Torah is that one thereby destroys the entire foundation of the Torah.
One who learns Torah but doesn’t perform mitzvos is comparable to someone who doesn’t have a G-d because, if he really believes that the Torah he learns has a Divine origin, he would automatically come to perform the mitzvos.
The Greeks tried so desperately to destroy the sanctity of the Torah because they knew that it was the kedushah (sanctity) of the Torah that gave it its value.
Elisha ben Avuya made the mistake of believing that he had to understand everything. He refused to acknowledge that G-d’s wisdom is too profound for a human mind to fathom.
The gemara in Mesechta Chagigah presents an apparent difficulty to the insight of the Medrash Shmuel: The gemara tells us that Rabbeinu HaKadosh was punished for referring to Elisha ben Avuya as a wicked person. What was more disparaging about Rebbi’s comment than the very mishnah in Pirkei Avos? Furthermore, how could the gemara in Chagigah indicate that Elisha ben Avuya had a share in Olam Hobah if the mishnah in Sanhedrin indicates otherwise?
The answer to this question is that Elisha ben Avuya repented at the end of his life (Yerushalmi). Thus, he no longer fell in the category of the mishnah in Avos of someone whose Torah wisdom exceeds his goods deeds and maintained his share in Olam Hobah through accepting the Divine source of the Torah.
One final difficulty: If the value of Torah study is that it brings a person to the fulfillment of good deeds, what is the interpretation of the gemara’s maxim of “expound and receive reward” in Mesechta Sanhedrin? Why should a person be rewarded for studying the halachos of the rebellious son, the wayward city, and house tzaraas if these halachos can never be applied in practice? The answer to this question, given to me by R’ Shapiro in Bayswater, is that there are two purposes to Torah study. While the primary purpose of Torah study is that it should lead to the performance of good deeds, Torah study is also an end in itself. The baraisah in Kiddushin only meant to indicate why Torah study is greater than performing good deeds, not the entire purpose of Torah study.