We always read Parshat V'etchanan on the Shabbat after the fast of the 9th of Av -- a Shabbat known as Shabbat Nachamu, the "Shabbat of Comfort."
The comfort of Parshat V'etchanan embraces far more than the Haftorah from Isaiah (chapter 40) which is the source of its name:
"Comfort, comfort My people," says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her time [of exile] has been fulfilled, that her iniquity has been conciliated, for she has received from the hand of God double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40)
This message of comfort is a prophecy concerning the eventual Redemption, and assures Israel that the destruction and exile are merely temporary phenomena in the context of an eternal covenant.
But Parshat V'etchanan offers comfort of a deeper sort, a comfort that is entirely based on the world of the present and does not have to await the coming of any Messiah.
The main theme of Parshat V'etchanan is to emphasize the overwhelming importance of Torah knowledge, recapping the encounter at Sinai, and repeating the Ten Commandments. Also the Shema, which contains the commandment of teaching the Torah to one's children, is here. Even more significant, the grounding of the transmission of Torah knowledge and methodology along the chain of generations is established in the following verses:
You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, "Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!" For which is a great nation that has a God Who is close to it, as is the Lord our God, whenever we call to Him? And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day? Only beware for yourself and greatly beware for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life, and make them known to your children and your children's children -- the day that you stood before the Lord your God, at Horeb, when God said to me, "Gather the people to Me and I shall let them hear My words so that they shall learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and they shall teach their children." (Deut. 4:6-10)
CONTINUITY OF GOD'S PRESENCE
We mourn the destruction of the Temple because it represents the departure of the Shechina, God's Presence, from the world. This departure is akin to the loss of a most cherished family member. But, in a way, God's Presence is still among us through His Torah, and that is the true comfort offered by Parshat V'etchanan.
From the day of the destruction of the Temple, God only has the four cubits of halacha as His domain in His world (Talmud, Berochot 8a)
Two people who sit together over the Torah, the Shechina hovers over them ... how do we know that even when one person engages in Torah study God immediately takes note and establishes his reward? It is written, Let one sit in solitude and be submissive, for He has laid it upon him. (Eicha 3:28),(Avot 3:2)
These and many other similar passages demonstrate that God is still present in the post-Temple world, and His Presence is linked directly to Torah study. It is clear that God needs Jews to study Torah to establish His Presence in the world.
The centrality of Torah study to Judaism is no less apparent on the human side. The study of Torah has provided the Jewish people not only with the wherewithal of cultural survival, but also with the spiritual happiness and strength required to sustain its morale and self-confidence through the extended darkness of the long Diaspora.
Parshat V'etchanan is an appropriate place to explore the concept of Torah learning and its centrality to Judaism.
The Mishna states (Avot 1:2) that the world stands on the tripod of Torah, Divine service, and kind deeds. The Maharal explains what this means. The human personality consists of three parts: 1) intelligence or the mind; 2) character or values; and 3) emotions or drives. The survival of the universe demands an attachment to God through the relationship developed with Him by human beings, and therefore, a method must be provided to connect each parts of the human personality to God in order to insure the survival of the universe. This happens when:
- man connects his intelligence to God through Torah study,
- he connects his character through Divine service,and
- he connects his emotions through the practice of kindness to his fellow man.
These three connections constitute the tripod of the Mishna.
Because the connection to God through Divine service can only reach completeness of expression through the rituals of the Temple, this leg of the tripod is necessarily incomplete following the Temple's destruction. But intelligence, character and emotions are a continuum, and the outward expression of human emotion is always directly related to the character of the human being. When the leg of the tripod associated with Divine service -- the vehicle that connects man's character to God -- cannot be adequately expressed, the final leg of the tripod, representing the connection established through emotion, must also be limited.
Thus, in effect, following the destruction of the Temple, the completeness of the connection of the Jewish personality with God is entirely dependent on the leg of the tripod associated with Torah study. As long as the connection made through Torah retains its full vigor, so does the entire continuum of the human personality set forth by the Maharal. Intelligence gives rise to character, which in turn is expressed through emotion.
THE HUMAN HEART
The chief difference between the universe as it was before the destruction of the Temple and the way it is now is represented by the role played by the human heart.
Whereas while the Temple stood it was possible to connect oneself to God purely emotionally as we do to other human beings, and the primacy in the human relationship with God was the province of the heart, this is no longer true in the world of the present. Today, the initial attachment to God must be forged by the exercise of human intelligence through the study of Torah. The universe still rests on the same tripod, but in today's post-Temple world, the heart must follow the mind.
Fortunately, the leg of the tripod that rests on Torah study is entirely independent of the existence of the Temple, and can be maintained during the darkest periods of exile in its full vigor. In a period of exile, the completeness and vigor of the entire tripod that maintains the world thus stands on Torah study alone.
But Torah study itself has two aspects: 1) to know its commandments in order to follow them; and 2) to know its teachings for its own sake.
For example, while women are exempt from the commandment to study Torah, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 47:14) obligates them to make the daily blessing on Torah learning. The commentators explain that this is due to the fact that every Jew must know how to properly observe the commandments that he or she is obligated to fulfill. The only way to know how to observe the commandments properly is to study the Torah and learn the rules that govern their performance. Thus women are also obligated to study Torah so that they can master the knowledge regarding the commandments that apply to them.
It follows that the obligation to study the Torah as such, cannot be related to discovering how to observe its commandments. Otherwise, there would be no difference between men and women in terms of the commandment to study Torah. The commandment to study Torah from which women are exempt must therefore be directed at learning the Torah and knowing it for its own sake, as pure knowledge.
But how can this be? Doesn't this run counter to the famous statement of Rabbi Yochonon that is repeated in various forms through all of Talmudic literature:
If someone studies Torah without intending to apply what he learns, it would have been better for him had he been smothered by his amniotic sack and never been born. (Yerushalmi, Brachot, 3b)
Isn't the idea of learning Torah inextricably intertwined with knowing how to carry out its commandments?
To answer this question properly we must contrast the Torah's attitude to knowledge about spirituality to the one that prevails in the secular world regarding this sort of knowledge.
TWO CATEGORIES OF KNOWLEDGE
The secular definition of knowledge divides knowledge into two categories: 1) scientific knowledge and 2) non-scientific knowledge.
The scientific view of reality is built on ideas that are verifiable by experiment, and in this respect knowledge is defined as the accumulation of hypotheses that have been successfully verified through experiments which can be duplicated by anyone, anywhere, with identical results. But experimentation invariably involves testing for a hypothesized result by weighing, measuring or otherwise detecting by some physically quantifiable means a phenomenon that is a part of the physical world.
Thus, by definition, any knowledge of purely metaphysical phenomena is automatically defined as unscientific and unverifiable and such knowledge cannot be established as a reality.
Unscientific knowledge is therefore relegated to the area of intuition and feeling in the secular view of the world. This sort of knowledge is a matter of opinion, where one person's theory is as good as any other person's. In the Maharal's division of the human personality quoted above, it is more appropriate to allocate the entire field of endeavor associated with such knowledge to the area of character and values, rather than to the area of knowledge and intelligence.
No doubt it would be fascinating to discover the answers to ultimate questions such as the existence of an intelligent Creator or a purpose to the universe, but, as it is impossible to study such questions scientifically, they are forever doomed to remain in the area of the unknown and can never be understood as being reflective of reality.
Needless to say, this view represents the ultimate pessimism. It relegates the universe to the status of an unexplainable cosmic accident, and condemns man to a purposeless existence as a meaningless cosmic blip within it. Every person can and must legitimately follow his intuition as far as deciding how to answer ultimate questions, but his decisions, which have more to do with the human heart than with human intelligence, cannot be graced with the honor of being ranked on a par with scientific knowledge. Who can guarantee that they conform to outer reality at all?
Thus, man's intelligence, the faculty that raises him above the other creatures in his world, is rendered useless to him as a guide. That is not to say that intelligence has no value. It is extremely useful to solve scientific problems, which is no small matter, as increased knowledge of science and technology lead to ever-higher standards of living. But as to helping man solve the dilemma of why he exists, man's powerful intelligence is rendered totally impotent.
There is a corollary to this secular view of knowledge in terms of the proper attitude to adopt towards the intellectual giants of the past. While no doubt we are overcome with admiration when we regard the early trail blazers of human knowledge who managed to come up with such great insights with the limited tools at their disposal, in terms of knowledge they cannot be regarded as our equals, much less our superiors. After all we understand the world much better and more accurately than they did.
While this is strictly true only regarding their scientific knowledge, it is an attitude that must inevitably carry over to embrace their spiritual/moral understanding of life and the world as well. When one is properly grounded in reality, even his intuition tends to be more reliable.
Thus the secular scholar believes himself to be at the frontiers of human knowledge no matter what area of intellectual endeavor he may be engaged in. He rests on the shoulders of the giants of the past, but even a midget standing on the shoulders of a giant sees further than the giant under him. (Rashi, Vayera)
ANSWER TO SKEPTICISM
The answer to all this skepticism is Torah study. Any effort to study another sort of reality from the outside, when you are stuck with the limited tools, is necessarily doomed to failure. In order to study an alternative reality you must be able to walk around within it and taste it from the inside. When you can smell its flowers and see its trees you can no longer doubt its existence. Knowing this, God gave man a Torah that embraces far more than a set of instructions for him to carry out in his world. God gave man the necessary information to be able to place himself inside spiritual reality and orient himself there.
The Torah scholar, who immerses himself in the pursuit of learning Torah for its own sake, finds himself inside a spiritual universe that is as real to him as anything in the physical world.
In the words of the Amora Shmuel:
"The paths of the heavens are as known to me as the streets of my home town Nahardoi." (Talmud, Brochot 58b)
It is only the person who has not immersed himself sufficiently in the sea of the Talmud that can be skeptical about the existence of God or of a spiritual world. Whoever has studied the Torah knows that it could not possibly have been invented by any human imagination and describes a world of ideas and values that are as real as anything else in man's universe.
As seen from a Torah perspective, the position reached by the scientist is only the half-way mark. It is perfectly true that the human mind cannot penetrate unaided into a reality other than the physical. The frontiers of science have taken us to a glimpse of reality as it must have appeared at 10 to the minus 43 seconds after the Big Bang, but beyond this point, human knowledge cannot go unaided. While we are scientifically aware of the fact that we cannot explain the origin of the universe in terms of natural law as we understand it, our knowledge does not allow us to glimpse the world of God from within.
Knowing this, God gave us intelligence and also gave us the Torah.
And God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, in Our likeness. (Genesis 1:25)
Rashi tells us that "in our likeness" means "with intelligence."
God trusted the intelligence He implanted in man, which mirrors His own, never to be satisfied until it could uncover the knowledge necessary to figure out the point of possessing such intelligence. But God knew that man's unaided efforts would only allow him to conclude that his intelligence must have a purpose, but not what that purpose might be. So, God also gave man His Torah, the book that contains the information necessary to provide a solid foundation for such knowledge.
Whoever studies Torah intensely knows positively that only God could have authored it. Once he reaches this conclusion, he gains confidence in the capacity of his God-given intelligence to serve him as his guide through life, based on the information readily obtainable from God's book. He does not have to relegate information regarding the purpose of existence to the realm of intuition. His intelligence is grounded in reality and still manages to encompass the spiritual world as knowledge, not intuition.
On the deepest level, to learn Torah with the idea of applying it means to use one's Torah knowledge to define reality. The proper study of Torah allows the Torah scholar to give his intelligence the preeminent place in the pantheon of the human personality.
Destruction and exile are phenomena that induce mental disorientation and emotional devastation. To be able to retain moral values and continue religious traditions in such situations, one has to have a powerful grip on one's sense of reality. One has to trust the power of one's mind to reach the truth. This power is found in the Torah, our chief comfort.