Precious Torah Moments
There's a fabulous story about the football (soccer בלע"ז) match this week between Israel and Scotland in Glasgow. As the television cameras panned around the crowd at the stadium, viewers caught sight of an elderly rabbi, wrapped up against the cold in a thick coat and scarf, learning from a sefer! The camera paused on this extraordinary sight, as one of the commentators laments that he missed the goal, and adds that the book must be a good read!
The rabbi was none other than Rav Zev Leff of Moshav Mattityahu. He was in Scotland visiting his children, and he took his grandchildren to the football game. It's an extraordinary kiddush Hashem, and a lesson for us, in two ways. But before getting to that, since this forum is about explaining the Rationalist Judaism perspective of Rambam, there is a comment that must be made.
In the Forward's charming article on this story, it quotes Rav Leff as saying that "If for one second there would be no one learning Torah anywhere in the world, the world would cease to exist.” This is, of course, common doctrine in the yeshivah world today, and was strongly articulated by R. Chaim of Volozhin. Indeed, for this reason, study shifts in the Volozhin yeshivah were arranged so that there was at least one student learning Torah at every moment of every day and night. The doctrine is presumed to lend credence to the mystical view of Torah study; that it creates the spiritual energy necessary for the world to function.
However, although R. Chaim attempts to show that this doctrine is based on classical texts from Chazal, this does not appear to be the case. Careful study reveals that, yet again, we have a situation where a relatively mild view was strengthened over time, infused with mystical meaning, and then read back into earlier sources.
I will be discussing this topic in great detail in my forthcoming book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Rabbinic Thought. For now, I will just give one example.
One source, cited by R. Haim of Volozhin, is the tenth-century Midrash of Tanna Devei Eliyahu: "The sages said: Whenever people neglect the Torah, the Holy One seeks to destroy the world" (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabba 2). Does this prove R. Chaim's doctrine?
First, let us note that it does not say that if people cease studying Torah then the world will be destroyed. Rather, it is a somewhat milder statement that when people neglect Torah (implying something that actually happens from time to time), God seeks to destroy the world (but does not actually do so).
Second, it says that they neglect the Torah, not that they neglect the study of Torah, and so it might refer to neglecting the observance of Torah. If we look at the full text of the Midrash, we see that this does indeed seem to be the reference. The context is a discussion of the severity of the punishment for the trivial sins of the righteous, naming Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu (which were not sins of neglecting Torah study), which segues into a discussion of the Deluge (which was likewise not a punishment for the sin of neglecting Torah study). It says:
"And why is there all this (punishment)? Because of [their transgression against] 'The Torah of God which is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of God which is sure, making the simple wise; the precepts of God which are right, making the heart rejoice; the instruction of God is lucid, making the eyes light up; the fear of God is pure, abiding forever; the judgments of God are true, altogether righteous; more desirable than gold, than much fine gold; sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb' (Ps. 19:8-11). From here we see, the sages said, that whenever people neglect the Torah, the Holy One seeks to destroy the world, as it says, 'Give praise to God, you divine beings,' (Ps. 29:1, which concludes with a reference to the Deluge), and the divine beings are the ministering angels. The Holy One said: I multiplied men (at the time of the Deluge) like the birds of the heaven and the fish of the sea, and they did not fulfill My will, therefore I hid My face from them." (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabba 2)
The entire discussion here is about people neglecting the observance of Torah, not the study of Torah.
Thus, Torah study does not mystically support the existence of the world at every moment. Rather, Torah study is incredibly important for the reasons given by the Rishonim - that it teaches us important concepts, and teaches us how to improve our characters and how to improve society.
Now, back the football match. Rav Leff's viral fame is an instructional Kiddush Hashem for two reasons. The obvious one is that it shows how great men use their time for applying their brains for self-improvement, rather than mindlessly watching grown men kick a ball around. Halevay we should all make use of our time so meticulously.
But there's also a second lesson here, which Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz pointed out. Clearly, Rav Leff does not have any interest in attending football games, especially not in a cold Scottish winter. And yet he did! He went because, as his daughter explained in an interview, he wanted to spend time with his grandchildren, participating in something that is important to them. As Rabbi Horowitz writes: "If all parents and grandparents had the attitude that spending time with their kids/grandkids is something well worth going outside their own comfort zone, those of us who deal with teens-at-risk would get far less “business” down the road." Indeed!
On another note - if on Thanksgiving you're wondering how we can eat turkey, seeing as there is no mesorah for it being a kosher bird, read my article at this link.