The Torah: An Elixir of Life for this World and the World to Come
We can perceive a certain degree of redundancy in the blessing of Moses to Reuben: “May Reuben live and not die” (Deuteronomy 33:6). Since death spares no one, what did Moses mean by these words?
The Torah is an elixir of life for man’s entire body (Eruvin 54a; Kiddushin 30b). By engaging in the study of Torah, we literally become a part of it. It nourishes our 248 members and 365 sinews. It is re’eu ben: When we diligently study Torah and ro’eh (see only it), we become a ben (son) of the Torah.
This son of the Torah therefore lives for eternity, for as we know the tzaddikim are called alive after they have died. Indeed, they are even greater after death than in life. This is the meaning of the expression vehi metav mispar (“may his population be included in the count”), which can also be understood as: He will die after a set number of years and proceed to a world where everything is good. It is by intensive Torah study that we can appreciate the sweetness of the Torah and live in both worlds eternally.
Moses beseeched Hashem to let him live and bring him into the land of Israel. However Hashem did not approve. The Midrash recounts that Moses begged Him to let him enter as a bird or a fish, his two hands serving as fins. Hashem replied that if He did that, He would be transgressing His own oath (see Devarim Rabba, Va’etchanan; Tanhuma ad. loc).
As an infant, Moses refused to nurse from an Egyptian because his mouth would later speak to the Shechniah. As a man, Moses was the father of the prophets (Vayikra Rabba 1:15), a person who spoke to Hashem face to face, ascended to Heaven body and soul to receive the Torah, and reached levels of holiness that no other person ever had. Thus how could we possibly think that Moses had begged G-d to transform him into a bird or a fish, ready to consume grass or even insects that are forbidden to eat?
It is precisely because of his greatness that Moses appreciated life so much, for as long as a person is alive he can study Torah, fulfill mitzvot, and refine his character traits and deeds without end. It is in this way that we give satisfaction to our Creator. Yet after we die, we are exempt from having to study Torah and fulfill mitzvot. As we have seen, an hour of repentance and good deeds in this world has greater value than the entire World to Come. The Gemara recounts that upon Moses’ ascension to Heaven, the angels wanted to burn him with the breath of their mouth, for they disagreed with the idea that a man, born of woman, could be in their midst (Shabbat 88b). Jealous of him, they asked how a man, made of flesh and blood, could manage to control his evil inclination, ascend to Heaven, and remain alive. Thus they understood their insignificance, for their essence was completely revealed by the fact that they do not possess an evil inclination, nor a body for that matter. They could not understand the presence of a mortal among them, one whose face shined with the brilliance of the sun. As for the angels themselves, when they descended to earth they took daughters from the land and sinned with them in the era of the generation of the flood (see Niddah 61a). Moses was therefore greater than the angels because of the Torah.
Having triumphed over the angels, Moses took hold of the Celestial Throne and asked them, “Do you have a right to be jealous? Does the evil inclination reside in you? If that were the case, you would not be able to resist it.” The angels then praised Hashem: “O L-RD, our Master, how mighty is Your Name throughout the earth” (Psalms 8:10; Shabbat 88a). They understood that to be able to master the evil inclination, the Children of Israel had to receive the Torah.
Having realized that it is only in this lower world, not in the Heavens, that one can serve G-d and constantly praise and exalt Him with divine aid, Moses expressed his desire to be transformed into a bird, if only he could remain alive, constantly serve G-d, and praise and exalt Him. Moses was even prepared to lose his status as a prophet of Israel.
During a visit to my great friend the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, he asked me how we can understand the prayer of the dog, a particularly insolent and crude animal, which nevertheless exclaims: “Come, let us prostrate ourselves and bow. Let us kneel before G-d our Maker” (Psalms 95:6). Does such an insolent creature have the right to pray before Hashem and praise Him?
It is here that we see the greatness of the dog, I told him, for although it is insolent and crude, and nothing shames it, it sincerely does whatever it is told. Being insolent and crude is no fault of its own, for it was in this way that it was created. Conversely, the dog has been endowed with a tremendous virtue: Its gratitude and absolute loyalty to its master. It also prostrates before G-d and submits to Him, inviting the entire world to express its gratitude to the Creator.
On the other hand, an insolent man cannot submit to G-d. It is therefore incumbent on every person created in the image of G-d, Who breathed into man the breath of life and gave him intelligence, to emulate His divine attributes and submit to Him through the study of Torah. He will then merit eternal life.
For Moses, life had exceedingly great importance. He yearned to live at all costs because he wanted to serve G-d. This is also why he began, just before his death, his discourse by the word vezot, which signifies the Torah, as it is written: “Vezot [And this is] the Torah” (Deuteronomy 4:44). This teaches us that whoever engages in the study of Torah, Vezot Haberacha, the Torah itself becomes a blessing for him. The world was created in six days precisely for the Torah (Pesachim 68b), which was given on the sixth day of Sivan. It is a blessing for all Israel.
As we have seen, the Midrash recounts that before Moses’ death, G-d hid the two trumpets in order to prevent him from summoning the people with them. G-d wanted Moses to personally go to each individual among the Children of Israel in order to make them realize the value of life. He wanted Moses to encourage them to use all their time to study Torah, explaining to them that if he was rushing so much, it was because he no longer had much time remaining. Moses therefore prayed that his end would not come, thereby enabling him to continue serving G-d with all his heart and soul.
When King David learned that he was to die on Shabbat, he spent his final day studying Torah with the utmost strength and intensity. The question that arises is obvious: Did he think he was immortal? Did he ignore the fact that death spares no one? The answer is that he desired to live in this world in order to continue intensely engaging in Torah study. His goal in this was to bring satisfaction to his Creator, for life only assumes importance in this world when we can study Torah, the best remedy against the evil inclination. It is only in this world that we can praise and exalt G-d.
The Ohr Chadash cites a teaching of our Sages, according to which the Holy One, blessed be He, promised Mashiach the son of David that he must reveal himself at the earliest in our days in order to give him everything he wants, as it is written: “I am obliged to proclaim that the L-RD said to me, ‘You are My son, I have begotten you this day. Ask of Me, and I will make nations your inheritance’ ” (Psalms 2:7-8). Seeing the death of Mashiach the son of Joseph, he said to Hashem: “Sovereign of the universe, I ask of You only the gift of life” (Sukkah 52a). The author explains that here we see that if Mashiach the son of Joseph had not been killed, then Mashiach the son of David would not have beseeched G-d to make him reach the greatest spiritual heights, as befitting the son of David. However the death of Mashiach the son of Joseph constrained all his requests, and He implored G-d to give him life, which is the greatest thing of all.
The death of Mashiach the son of Joseph contributed to putting the value of life in perspective. Is there, in fact, a greater gift than life? Is there a greater kindness or treasure than life? Life comprises all blessings, for at each instant we can attain sublime and eternal levels. When we have life we have everything, and we need nothing more.
Why did Mashiach the son of David ask for life? He will surely live to fulfill his mission of liberating the Jewish people! The answer is that after the death of Mashiach the son of Joseph, he will consider that rather than being a mortal Mashiach, it would be better to live without this title and not die, all in order to serve G-d and give Him satisfaction. For him nothing was worth as much as eternal life, in which we can engage in Torah study and endlessly develop our knowledge of G-d, wisdom, and fear of Heaven.
Why the mad dash to get rich, if we know that in the end we will die and leave all our goods to others (Psalms 49:11)? On this King Solomon said, “A live dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4). As we saw earlier, the dog exalts his Creator and calls every person to submit to Him. When we address our prayers to Hashem, let us be content with imploring Him to give us life (as in the prayers of Rosh Hashanah), for in life we can reach lofty spiritual levels. I have often noticed that people who hear a beautiful Torah lesson from a gifted speaker will continue to blithely follow their daily routine. Why were the impassioned words that they heard unable to penetrate their hearts, while at the same time they had a great impact on certain individuals, making them take to the right path?
The reason is that those who regularly go to synagogue are used to hearing Torah discourses from rabbis, and therefore their impact on them is limited. However if these same people were to carefully put these teachings into practice, they would certainly be infused in their hearts.
Furthermore, it is not enough to simply pray regularly. It is crucial to fix regular times for Torah study, for in the morning prayer we implore G-d to enlighten our eyes in His Torah and make our hearts cleave to His commandments. Since G-d hears our prayer and grants the first part of our request, how can we then refrain from opening a book and rejoicing in the sublime light of the Torah that was given to us as a gift from Hashem? How can we allow ourselves to use this light for our own frivolous purposes? Our punishment will be infinitely worse in that case, G-d forbid, because while profaning G-d’s Name, we will have refrained from engaging in the study of Torah. Let us therefore concentrate for a few moments before prayer or Torah study in order that our service of Hashem should not become a daily routine to us. Let us plumb the depths of the Torah’s holiness and carefully put what we have learned into practice. Otherwise what purpose will our lives have served?