One of the key attributes required in order to grow through Torah is known as “ עמל התורה” – the toil of study of Torah. It is a value which stands on its own and is seen as crucial to internalize Torah values and knowledge.
The Talmud (Bava Kama 20b) teaches this principle by conveying the following narrative:
One of the great Talmudic sages Shimon Haamnusi learnt and taught a meaning and imperative from every letter and word in the Torah. He did so on the basis that every verse and every teaching has another implication. At a certain point, after many years and much effort, he came across the verse “Hashem your G-d shall you fear…” ( Dvarim 6:13)
What might this come to add beyond the straight forward meaning of the verse? Can there be anything beyond the Almighty? Shimon Haamnusi retracted all his teachings as a result claiming that he had been mistaken as this system, his life’s work, seemed to have been based an error.
His disciples asked him: Rebbe, all your teachings what shall become of them? He responded: As I received reward for the expounding and teaching so too I shall receive reward for ceasing to do so.
I have often thought of this Gemarah and what it means. I understand the reward received for ceasing to teach. Since recognizing an error in one’s life work is no easy task. Acting on it is even harder. Yet if all the teachings were in error since the premise on which they were based were wrong, why would he, Reb Shimon, receive a reward for the expounding and teaching?
Maharal (Netivot Olam, Page 197) teaches here that when the teaching was done it was done in order to seek truth. There was no expectation that it would be of no avail rather it was seen as a fresh new way of looking into and understanding words of Torah. As a result, the effort is rewarded. This effort is the toil, the undertaking, the time and effort.
In essence it is not the results that count and make the difference to our souls rather it is the engagement and the process of Torah learning which brings us closer to our maker and creator.
When Moshe encounters the burning bush the narrative in the Torah relates that Moshe hid his face
“An Angel of Hashem appeared to him in a blaze of fire from amid the bush… Moshe hid his face…” (Shemot 3:2-6)
The Talmud (Brachot 7:a) records a fascinating discussion as to the suitability and appropriateness of this action. Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Korcha taught that in effect Moshe missed an outstanding opportunity to gaze, as it were, upon the Divine to see within. Moshe missed this chance and as a result was limited in his encounter with Hashem and would not be able to see his face but only his back.
However, Rabbi Yochanan understood Moshe’s behavior to be meritorious as it was a natural response of humility and awe of heaven.
Rav Kook (Ein Aya 1:32) expounds this text and understands that there are two views in understanding the function of the study of Torah, the fire and the word of G-d.
The first he associates with Rambam whom like Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Korcha believes the aim is to gain knowledge and by doing so attaching ourselves to the Divine. Understanding and comprehending the spiritual realm upon high is the highest form of our purpose in this world. Yet according to Chovat Halevavot the aim is to perfect our character traits sharpen our midot, attune our values to that of the will of the Almighty. Hence according to the second opinion in the Talmud Moshe was actually rewarded for his response in that his face shone with an aura of the Divine.
The study of Torah must be a synthesis of the two. The attainment of knowledge alone will not ignite our souls but the study of the word of Hashem for the sake of coming closer to the Divine is in and of itself the aim and goal.
When Rabbi Shimon realized he had erred he did not regret his life’s endeavor even for one moment since the aim and intention was not to publish a book or a teaching or even to seek knowledge but to enlighten the soul and connect to Hashem through His word. The toil of Torah is what counts even when the results at first blush may be hard to identify.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag sameach.