Perfection Through Torah Study

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Photograph by Aaron Burden

Perfection Through Torah Study:

The Rambam’s masterpiece, The Yad HaChazakah[1], has both a beautiful and meaningful order.  Understanding this order solves many of the ambiguities and complexities within its pages.

Allow for me to share with you the first and most apparent example.  The first book in The Yad HaChazakah is called The Book of Wisdom, and within this book there are five categories of law.  They are, in order: The Laws Which are the Foundation of the Torah, The Laws of Personal Development, The Laws of Torah Study, The Laws of Idol Worship, and The Laws of Repentance.  If you will, let me share with you the uniqueness and significance of each of these five sets of laws and why this particular order is so important.

The first set of laws within The Book of Wisdom is The Laws Which are Foundation of the Torah.  Its entire purpose is to share with you knowledge of God.  In particular, that you should understand His existence, His Awesomeness and His Uniqueness.  Although, at the end of these beautiful chapters we find ourselves lonely.  How can we feel important after learning about the magnanimity of God?  Well, that’s a great question!  But, fear not, that will be addressed within…

The second set of laws within The Book of Wisdom is The Laws of Personal Development.  Within this section, we learn about ourselves and our relationship with others.  It teaches us that we should develop good attributes and be kind and compassionate to our brethren who are also attempting to do this.  Although, these chapters can be very painful.  The expectations they set upon ourselves are very high and often feel impossible.  Fortunately, the Rambam understands this and shares with us a shortcut.  That shortcut is…

The third set of laws within The Book of Wisdom is The Laws of Torah Study.  These laws demonstrate the absolute importance of learning Torah.  Its importance is paramount, and well demonstrated in The Laws of Torah Study (3:1):

בשלשה כתרים נכתרו ישראל כתר תורה וכתר כהונה וכתר מלכות כתר כהונה זכה בו אהרן שנאמר והיתה לו ולזרעו אחריו ברית כהנת עולם כתר מלכות זכה בו דוד שנאמר זרעו לעולם יהיה וכסאו כשמש נגדי כתר תורה הרי מונח ועומד ומוכן לכל ישראל שנאמר תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהלת יעקב כל מי שירצה יבא ויטול שמא תאמר שאותם הכתרים גדולים מכתר תורה הרי הוא אומר בי מלכים ימלוכו ורוזנים יחוקקו צדק בי שרים ישורו הא למדת שכתר תורה גדול משניהם

With three crows Israel was crowned: the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood, and the crown of Kingship...  Behold, the crown of Torah stands ready for all of Israel [to take], as it says, "The Torah was commanded by Moshe as an inheritance for the congregation of Yaakov."  Anyone who desires can come and take it.  Perhaps you will think that the other crowns[2] are more significant than the crown of Torah?  But, it says, "Through the Torah, kings will reign and nobles will legislate righteousness. Through the Torah, officers are granted authority."  From here, we learn that the crown of Torah is greater than the other two.

Simply put, learning Torah to adorn yourself with the Crown of Torah is the highest achievement possible.  This is further demonstrated in the very next law (The Laws of Torah Study 3:2):

אמרו חכמים ממזר ת"ח קודם לכהן גדול עם הארץ שנאמר יקרה היא מפנינים מכהן גדול שנכנס לפני ולפנים

Our Sages teach that even a Torah scholar who is a bastard deserves precedence over a high priest who is unlearned, for the Torah teaches, "It is more precious than pearls."  More precious than the High Priest who enters the innermost chambers.

A person of inherent diminished stature who learns Torah, is held in higher status than one born into royalty or the highest level of priests.  Now, we’ve learned three sections within The Book of Knowledge.  We’ve learned about God, ourselves and how to perfect ourselves through learning Torah.  When finishing this section, we feel excited and ambitious.  The Rambam wishes to further prepare us this journey.  For, to understand the ultimate good which is Torah learning we must also understand the ultimate evil which is…

The fourth set of laws within The Book of Wisdom is The Laws of Idol Worship.  Now, these laws are very numerous.  In fact, there’s fifty-one total commandments explained within this section, and it’s important to understand the reason why they’re so numerous.  This is best demonstrated in the third section of the Rambam’s The Guide to the Perplexed, in particular chapters 28-34.

ממה שצריך שתתעורר עליו הוא שתדע שהדעות האמתיות אשר בהם יגיע השלמות האחרון אמנם נתנה התורה מהם תכליתם וצותה להאמין בהם בכלל והוא - מציאות האלוה ית' ויחודו וידיעתו ויכלתו ורצונו וקדמותו - אלו כולם תכליות אחרונות לא יתבארו בפרט ובמוגבלות אלא אחר ידיעת דעות רבות (מורה נבוכים ג:כח)י

It is necessary to bear in mind that Scripture only teaches the chief points of those true principles which lead to the true perfection of man, and only demands in general terms faith in them. Thus Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Win, and the Eternity of God. All this is given in the form of final results, but they cannot be understood fully and accurately except after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge. (The Guide to the Perplexed 3:28).

After this quote, the Rambam continues on and on explaining how many parts of the law are best understood when paired against forms of idol worship[3].  A wonderful example of non-transparent idol worship is arrogance.  To believe that we’ve earned some type of living, status or wealth is absurd.  As demonstrated in The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer.

אילו קרקעות בקשתי מלפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, היה לפניו לתן לי, שנאמר: "לה' הארץ ומלואה תבל וישבי בה" ואילו כסף וזהב בקשתי, היה נותן לי, שנאמר: "לי הכסף ולי הזהב נאם הי צבאות". אלא לא בקשתי מלפני הקדוש ברוך הוא אלא תורה בלבד, שנאמר: "על כן, כל פקודי כל ישרתי כל ארח שקר זנאתי (פרקי דרבי אליעזר 2) 2

If I had asked the Holy One, blessed be He, for land, it would be possible for Him to give this to me, as it is said, "The earth is the Lord's, and he fills the land.”  Had I asked the Holy One, blessed be He, for silver and gold, He could have given them to me, as it is said, "The silver is mine, and the gold is mine.” But I asked the Holy One, blessed be He, that I might be worthy for Torah only, as it is said, "Therefore I esteem all precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way." (The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 2).

So, now we understand many wonderful concepts.  We understand to some extent our perception of God.  We understand ourselves and our goals.  We even understand how to reach these goals though Torah study and by avoiding any type of idol worship.  Although, we all make mistakes here and there, which brings us to…

The fifth set of laws within The Book of Wisdom is The Laws of Repentance.   Very simple, just one commandment: that we should repent from our sins before God and confess to Him.  Through our repentance, we transform our sins into merits.  Now, this isn’t some type of magic trick.  It’s because through our sinning we invite the opportunity to learn Torah.  The primary way in which we recover from our sins is to learn the Torah regarding that subject.  Through our learning, we perfect these negative qualities of ourselves and we transform our sins into merits.  This is best demonstrated in The Laws of Torah Study (3:3).

אין לך מצוה בכל המצות כולן שהיא שקולה כנגד תלמוד תורה אלא תלמוד תורה כנגד כל המצות כולן שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה לפיכך התלמוד קודם למעשה בכל מקום

None of the other mitzvot can be equated to the study of Torah. Rather, the study of Torah can be equated to all the mitzvot, because study leads to deed. Therefore, study takes precedence over deed in all cases.

This is just one example of the beauty of the Rambam’s order in his magnum opus The Yad HaChazakah.  From nothing, we’ve learned about God, ourselves, our goals, our failures and how to recover from our failures.  That’s why this book is called The Book of Wisdom.

Now, if you will, let me share with you one last example.  This example is wonderful, because it shows the complexity and depth of this beautiful book.  Let’s turn to the very last book and very last set of laws in The Yad HaChazakah, The Laws of Kings and Wars, and within the first sentence we discover the secret of life.

שלש מצות נצטוו ישראל בשעת כניסתן לארץ למנות להם מלך שנאמר שום תשים עליך מלך ולהכרית זרעו של עמלק שנאמר תמחה את זכר עמלק ולבנות בית הבחירה שנאמר לשכנו תדרשו ובאת שמה

Three mitzvos were commanded to Israel at the time they entered into the land [of Israel]: to appoint for themselves a king, as it is said, "You shall surely appoint a king over you;" to wipe out the seed of Amalek, as it is said, "Erase the seed of Amalek;” and to build the temple, as it is said, "Seek His presence and go there."

These are the laws of the Jewish people when they entered the land of Israel.  They should come together and appoint a king over themselves.  This king then should lead a war against the evil tribe of Amalek, and after their destruction, he should build the holy temple.  Simple enough… but not really.  The depth of the law seeks us to find the parallel within ourselves.

First, we should appoint ourselves a king by accepting the yoke of Torah in attempt to adorn ourselves with the Crown of Torah.

Second, we should seek out and destroy the entire seek of Amalek.  From an individual perspective: Amalek is often paralleled to the evil inclination (Avos d’Rebbi Nasan 1:16), and so too we must destroy the entire seed of our evil inclination.  In the Haftarah for Parshas Zachor (I Samuel 15:2-34), Samuel, the prophet, commands King Saul to go destroy the entire seed of Amalek.  Not to just hurt or harm them, but to seek every nook and cranny and completely destroy Amalek.  So too, regarding our evil inclination; we must seek it out within every attribute of our self.  Our thoughts, our words, our senses and everything else about it.  And, we’re not passive about it.  We seek it out relentlessly.  We must turn internal and constantly seek out our evil inclination and completely obliterate it.  This is done by perfecting ourselves through the fire of Torah learning.  As demonstrated in The Guide to the Perplexed:

מכלל כונות התורה השלמה גם כן - להרחיק התאוות ולבוז בהם ולמעטם בכל יכולת ושלא יכון בהם אלא ההכרחי. וכבר ידעת שרוב תאות ההמון ושילוחם אמנם הוא בהרבות במאכל ובמשתה ובמשגל. וזהו המבטל משלמות האדם האחרון המזיק לו גם כן בשלמותו הראשון המפסיד לרוב עניני אנשי המדינה והנהגת הבית (מורה נבוכים ג:לג)ג

It is also the object of the perfect Law to make man reject, despise, and reduce his desires as much as is in his power. He should only give way to them when absolutely necessary. It is well known that it is intemperance in eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse that people mostly rave and indulge in; and these very things counteract the ulterior perfection of man, impede at the same time the development of his first perfection, and generally disturb the social order of the country and the economy of the family (The Guide to the Perplexed 3:33)

Third, we must build the holy temple.  Not the temple in Jerusalem, but the Temple inside of each one of us.  Within this temple, we offer the ultimate sacrifice upon the holy alter of our hearts.  We sacrifice our own free will.  The essence of our own creation.  We nullify our own will to act out the will of God and live completely within His way.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  This is silly and something that’s interesting to talk about, but unrealistic.  But, that’s not true.  I deeply implore upon you that these three steps are not only possible, but are possible to complete quicker than you think possible.  So, allow me to give you the following blessing.  May you sit and learn Torah and place upon your head the crown of Torah.  May you seek out the evil inclination and all of its roots within your creation and completely destroy them.  And, may you build the temple and sacrifice your will for the will of Gd.

[1] The Yad HaChazakah directly translates into, “The Strong Hand,” but there’s a special nuance here.  The word Yad is spelled יד which has a numerical value of 14.  This was done purposely, because The Yad HaChazakah has 14 books within its bindings.  Really, it translates into, “The Strong Fourteen,” relating to the importance the number of books.  Again, that’s the purpose of this short explanation.  That every book has a number and its order is paramount to understanding the truth of the subject.

[2] This refers to the Crown of Kingship and the Crown of Priesthood.

[3] There’s a fascinating and important idea here.  In particular, the Vilna Gaon states that, “Every letter in the Torah is a Commandment,” and it’s precisely for this reason.  Although, we may separate them into 613 commandments or categories; really, in each letter we can go against idol worship, and that is truly our command.