Torah Study: the Goal of Man and Foundation of the World
When Moses ascended to Heaven, it is stated that the ministering angels said to the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the universe, what is this man, born of woman, doing among us?” (Shabbat 88b). It is difficult to understand what surprised the angels so much. Did they not know, or had they not heard that the Holy One, blessed be He, had given the Torah to Israel? Besides, they themselves were present when the Torah was given (ibid.), so what were they getting at by stressing the fact that Moses was the son of a woman?
It appears they were not trying to disparage Moses by calling him a “man, born of woman”; their aim was quite the opposite. In fact we know that at the giving of the Torah, the Children of Israel reached a higher spiritual level than the angels, for if angels carry out G-d’s will, it is because they have no connection whatsoever to the material world. They have neither a body nor an evil inclination to incite them to sin or ignore G-d’s will at every moment. On the contrary, the Children of Israel used the language of the angels and performed G-d’s will despite their material bodies and evil inclination. And since at the giving of the Torah they tried to spiritually elevate themselves to a level higher than they were capable of, their souls left them (Shir Hashirim Rabba 6:3). Hence at that point they were at a much loftier spiritual level than the angels.
It is said concerning our teacher Moses when he ascended to Heaven: “You ascended on high, you have taken captives” (Psalms 68:19). Now we know that when a person seizes captives, this demonstrates his strength and victory in battle. With our teacher Moses the victory was a double one, for not only did he conquer the angels, but what’s more is that he did it on their own territory, which is all the more difficult. This is why the angels said to the Holy One, blessed be He: “What is this man, born of woman, doing among us? He is at a greater spiritual level than us, and moreover he is seizing spoils! We beg You to get him out of here!”
This shows us the immense importance of Torah study, to the point that when a man studies, the Holy One drops, as it were, everything He is doing and focuses exclusively on him. This is the meaning of the verse, “I will turn My attention to you; I will make your fruitful…” (Leviticus 26:9), a verse that speaks of those who devote themselves to Torah study. At Creation the Holy One, blessed be He, left everything to look into the Torah and create the world (Zohar II:161b), which means that He was not concerned with anything at that point but the Torah. Similarly, He frees Himself from all other occupations to focus exclusively on the one who studies Torah. The reason for this is clearly understandable: We know that the Holy One, blessed be He, deals with a person measure for measure (Sanhedrin 90a), to the extent that when a person drops all his affairs to engage in study, G-d also “frees” Himself, as it were, to attend solely to him. This is the meaning of the Sages’ teaching, “Whoever is immersed in Torah study, the Holy One, blessed be He, studies with him” (Tamid 32a). And if we ask how G-d, Who is the King of the universe, can drop everything to focus exclusively on such a person, risking the destruction of the universe, the answer is that whoever studies Torah becomes a partner of the Holy One, blessed be He, in Creation. Consequently, everything remains stable because of the merit of the Torah study performed by those whom G-d is focused on. This is what the Sages have said, “The world stands on three things: On Torah…” (Perkei Avoth 1:2). Thus on the contrary, those who study Torah contribute to the existence of the universe.
Nevertheless, even a person who studies Torah should pay extremely close attention to the schemes of the evil inclination. It is very possible that in the beginning, it will encourage him to study Torah and perform mitzvot so as put him off-guard and content with his spiritual state. His instincts can then easily take the upper hand and incite him to commit a sin. We encounter this idea concerning the one who studies while walking on the road and stops to remark, “How beautify is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field! Scripture considers it as if he were guilty of a mortal sin” (Perkei Avoth 3:7). It may seem to us to be a mitzvah to contemplate the marvels of Creation, and yet it is like putting one’s own soul in danger, for this advice stems from the evil inclination, which tries to turn a person away from studying. A person can be greatly criticized for this, since if he finds an opportunity to listen to the deceitful advice of his evil inclination, why has he not found an opportunity to listen to the voice of the good inclination?
The Children of Israel experienced a great awakening in Egypt. Yet even though they believed what they had been told (“G-d will surely remember you and bring you up out of this land” [Genesis 50:24]), they were still far from a lofty spiritual level, and they certainly did not approach that of the angels. The reason for this is that they had an evil inclination that encouraged them to consider both good and evil as being absolutely equal. Thus on one hand they protected their native language, their manner of dress, and so on (Vayikra Rabba 32:5; Pesikta Zutah Shemot 6:6), but on the other hand they descended all the way to the 49th gate of impurity (Zohar Chadash Yitro 39a). Nevertheless the Holy One, blessed be He, did not punish or reprimand them, for this was not their fault. On the contrary, He helped them to uncover sparks of holiness. This is the meaning of, “They could not delay” (Exodus 12:39), for good and evil were equal in their eyes and they were about to breach the 50th gate of impurity, a gate that we know is impossible to escape from.
G-d said to the Children of Israel, “I recall for you the kindness of your youth … your following Me into the wilderness, into an unsown land” (Jeremiah 2:2). This may seem surprising. Why is the fact that the Children of Israel accepted to leave Egypt called “kindness”? On the contrary, we should be the ones thanking the Holy One, blessed be He, Who very much wanted to take us out of Egypt, for in the opposite case we and our children and their progeny would still be slaves in Egypt!
Nevertheless, we can understand the statement in the book of Jeremiah according to what we have said about the Children of Israel’s spiritual condition in Egypt. In other words, it was of a dual nature, meaning that they obeyed both their evil and good inclinations to the same degree, and apparently without any chance of choosing the good over the evil. Now if by exerting a superhuman effort the Children of Israel managed to leave Egypt in spite of everything, this demonstrates that they also succeeded in making the good inclination stronger than their evil one. It was for this reason that G-d glories in us and considers that event as a kindness on our part. That is what helped the Children of Israel to continue elevating themselves, to the point that when they arrived at the giving of the Torah they were already at a great spiritual level, for one mitzvah brings about another (Perkei Avoth 4:2).