3 Weeks and 9 Av: The Oral Torah and the Challenge of the Land of Israel

Nov 17, 2014

The Challenge of the Land of Israel

based on a talk by
Rabbi Yitzchak Hirshfeld

The sin of the spies teaches us an important lesson for our avodat Hashem (service of G-d), for our Torah learning and for building an environment conducive to spiritual growth.

The Sfat Emet: The Land of Israel & the Oral Torah
Our starting point is a comment by the Sfat Emet on Parshat Shelach.

On the words, “Shelach lekha (Send for yourself),” Rashi comments, “For yourself – according to your judgement, Moshe.” The Sfat Emet (Shelach 5653, ‘V’inyan,’ p. 103) comments that G-d left it up to Moshe’s initiative because “The essence of the Land of Israel is related to the Torah Shebaal Peh (Oral Torah). What does this mean? Just as one only acquires the Oral Torah through his own efforts, so one only taps into the Land of Israel through personal effort.

The Oral and the Written Torahs
G-d gave us two Torahs, Written and Oral. They are intimately intertwined; we cannot imagine them existing independently. All the commandments were given through both. However, they are two very different ways of defining the relationship between G-d and the people of Israel.

The Midrash teaches that when the people of Israel offered the Torah to Israel, G-d held the mountain over them, forcing them to assent. This seems to contradict the verse where the people of Israel willingly say, “Naaseh v’nishma – We will do and we will listen.” Why did G-d have to hold the mountain over them? The Tanchuma answers that “naaseh venishma” refers to the Written Torah whereas they had to be forced to receive the Oral Torah.

The Oral Torah is much more of a challenge than the Written one. The Written Torah is finite while the Oral Torah is infinite. The Written Torah can theoretically be received passively but the Oral Torah requires active participation. We have no input regarding the content of the Written Torah; it is exactly as G-d dictated it to Moshe. What it looks like has nothing to do with us. For three thousand years we have been reading the same Written Torah. The Oral Torah, though, always changes, through new insights, new understandings and new applications. Furthermore, one person’s Oral Torah – his understanding and connection – is different from anyone else’s. The Oral is not to merely be received. We are to take the building bocks and reshape them. The nation was hesitant to receive the Oral Torah. They wanted G-d to give it to them, enlighten them, and show them the truth. They were not ready to put in the effort themselves.

The First and Second Tablets
Applying the Sfat Emet’s terminology, we can make a similar distinction between the first and the second tablets given to Moshe. The first, G-d’s handiwork, were more Written Torah than the second, which were hewn by Moshe. Just a look at the first tablets would bring Divine clarity. But those tablets were broken on the Seventeenth of Tamuz. The second tablets, brought down on Yom Kippur, were more Oral Torah style. It is not anymore the hand of G-d but human effort that enables man to plumb the depths of Torah.

The First and Second Temples
The Divine Providence Israel experienced during the first and second Temple periods reflects a similar distinction. During the first Temple period there was much more open revelation. There was prophecy among the people and there were open miracles in the Temple. In the second Temple period the leaders were sages, not prophets. There were not so many miracles manifest in the Temple. The first Temple period was much more like the Written Torah. During the second, much more Oral Torah like period, if one wanted to see spirituality he had to look beneath the surface. A person could theoretically look at the activities going on in the second Temple and see nothing more than a group of specially dressed people slaughtering sheep. Certainly in our period it is possible to see the Western Wall and not feel anything. That is because Oral Torah type things require personal effort to bring out their inner essence.

Seeing the meaning in the Oral Torah itself requires toil. In order to see the light hidden within the Oral Torah we must scratch beneath the surface and fan the flames. Only then does the Divine revelation come out.

The Oral Torah Community
There is another distinction between the Written and the Oral Torahs – how all those involved in the process relate to each other. The Oral Torah must be acquired by a cooperative, interacting group making a common effort. Contrast, for example, a group of one hundred people receiving tzedaka (charity) with another hundred hearing a shiur (Torah lesson). The hundred receiving tzedaka do not need each other, would probably rather not know each other, and perhaps might even prefer that the numbers of the group were much smaller. A hundred students learning from a Rebbi, though, is presented with a challenge. They can join together in a common effort, picking each others’ brains, probing, bringing out the Oral Torah through an interactive Beit Medrash. They can be like a hundred who join together to form a charity organization; they must work together. They can, however, also be one hundred individual passive receivers, each personally hearing the Rebbi’s talk but not forming a cohesive unit. We are challenged to learn the Oral Torah in a noisy Beit Medrash peopled by a dynamic interactive learning community.

The Sfat Emet teaches us that the Land of Israel also must be acquired through a joint effort. We cannot get beyond the external layers of the Land of Israel without a cooperative community and without serious effort. Otherwise it can become distorted and defiled.

Repairing the Sin of the Spies
Kalev tried to instill this approach in the people. If G-d says so, said Kalev, the nation of Israel can, through their common efforts, acquire the land. The nation was afraid of an Oral Torah existence in the land of Israel. They were also afraid of having Yehoshua as their new leader. They wanted to remain in a much more passive mode, receiving Torah from Moshe without having to toil to bring it out. Their sin, lashon hara, evil speech, was the divisive force that destroyed the Oral Torah community that could develop in the Land of Israel. They sinned on Tisha B’Av. The same sin of lashon hara, along with the senseless hatred and factionalism that comes in its wake, also brought down the Jewish Oral Torah community of the second Temple period, culminating in the destruction of the second Temple, also on Tisha B’Av.

Repairing the sin of the spies requires building a common communty, digging deeply into the spirituality of the Land of Israel, and putting in the tremendous effort required to bring out the spirituality of the Oral Torah.

G-d should help us that we should be able to reverse this sin and others and bring the Mashiach speedily in our days.

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