No Stone Unturned

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Chukas
No Stone Unturned

The first topic in this week's parsha discusses the laws of impurity. For example, if a person came into contact with a corpse, one would need the Red Cow's ashes to remove the contamination. In conclusion, the verse says, "Zos HaTorah Adam Ki Yamus Baohel" (This is the teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent; Parshas Chukas, 19:14).

However, the Talmud (Berachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh", pg. 63b) takes this verse to an entirely different dimension. Reish Lakish said, "How do we know that the Torah will only be retained by a person who kills himself (sacrifices) over it?" This is derived from the verse which says, "Zos HaTorah Adam Ki Yamus Baohel" which alternatively means "This Torah will be found in a person who kills himself in the tents of Torah."

Reish Lakish lived up to this expectation (Chagiga, chap. 2, "Ein Dorshin", pg. 14b) because, at one time, he was the leader of a band of thieves. Then, he met Rebbi Yochanan who brought Resh Lakish under the wings of the Divine Presence. Reish Lakish studied so hard that he "killed himself" in Rebbi Yochana's academy until he became one of the foremost leaders of the Oral Law.

We could ask what Reish Lakish meant when he said that we must "kill ourselves" for Torah. Did he mean that we must kill our bodies physically or did he mean that we must kill our souls spiritually? Let us explain what it means to "kill the body" and "kill the soul."

"Killing the body" means that we are willing to make physical sacrifices for Torah. For example, to diminish the amount of food we eat and reduce the amount of sleep that we would otherwise indulge in. Obviously, we must eat, drink, and sleep, but, there comes a point when we begin to pamper our bodies unnecessarily. We must be willing to sacrifice those comforts for Torah.

"Killing the soul" means that we are willing to put a strain on the soul when we learn Torah. How do we strain the soul in Torah learning? Well, the soul is found in the brain (prayer prior to donning the tefillin), which means that the soul is connected to the intellectual capacity. Therefore, when we do not simply "read" the Torah superficially, but "toil" to understand the Torah deeply, we are straining the soul intellectually.

What are we supposed to sacrifice to succeed in Torah? Body or soul? The answer is both! There are sources on both sides of the coin.

For example, the Bereisa (Avos, 6:4) says that the way of Torah is when a person has the willingness to eat just a piece of bread dipped in salt, drink measured water, sleep on the ground, live a life of pain, and toil in Torah study. If we do so, we will have a praiseworthy life in this world and we will procure a good life in the world to come (Tehillim, 128:2). This Bereisa is clearly talking about "killing the body" to acquire the Torah.

On the other hand, the Taz (Turei Zahav, Orach Chaim, 47:1; Rabbi Dovid ben Shmuel Halevi, 1586-1667, Lodmir Poland) says that "killing ourselves in Torah" means to think deeply about the Torah and engage in the "back and forth" and in the "give and take" of Torah. After all, the blessing recited prior to Torah study is not, "Lilmod Es HaTorah" (learn the Torah), rather, "La'asok B'divrei Torah" (toil in the words of Torah). The Taz is clearly talking about straining the soul intellectually in learning.

We must make all sorts of sacrifices to excel in Torah, physically and spiritually. These two interpretations of Reish Lakish (physical and spiritual sacrifices) correspond the two approaches of learning Torah, which are: 1) Sinai and 2) Oker Harim (Horios, chap. 3, "Kohen Moshiach", pg. 14a). Rashi (ibid) explains what these two expressions mean.

"Sinai" represents that Torah scholar who has an encyclopedic knowledge of all areas of Torah. He knows something about everything. Meaning, he has a breadth of Torah knowledge. This person is called "Sinai" because all of the Mishnayos are organized before him just like it was given to Moshe at Mount "Sinai". Today, we call this a master in "bikiyus" (one who is familiar with all areas of Torah).

"Oker Harim" represents the Torah scholar who may not possess a breadth of Torah. He may not have all the Mishnayos arranged before his eyes systematically; however, whatever he does learn he probes to the deepest of levels. This approach is called "Oker Harim" because he "uproots mountains" and gets to the bottom of the matter. Today, we call this a master in "b'iyun" (one who delves deeply in Torah).

Reish Lakish excelled in both areas. On the one hand he was a Sinai. We see this from the Gemara (Ta'anis, chap. 1, "M'eimasai", pgs. 7b-8a) which reports that Reish Lakish would not dare discuss Torah with Rebbi Yochanan unless he first reviewed all his Mishnayos forty times, corresponding the forty days during which the Torah was given to Moshe at Har Sinai. Reish Lakish mastered the breadth of Torah, like a Sinai.

On the other hand, Reish Lakish was an Oker Harim. We can see from the words of Ulah who testified that anyone who saw Reish Lakish in the Beis Medrash witnessed that Reish Lakish would "rip mountains out of the ground (Oker Harim) and grind them together" (Sanhedrin, chap. 3, "Zeh Borer", pg. 24a). Meaning, he would break the "mountains" (Torah teachings) down to pebbles (bite sizes) and analyze every detail to figure out the mechanics behind every nuance of halacha. I guess you could say that Reish Lakish did not leave any stone unturned!

The Gemara (Horios, ibid) relates that it came time to appoint a new Rosh Yeshiva over the academy in Bavel. There were two candidates: Rav Yosef and Rabba. Rav Yosef was a Sinai scholar and Rabba was an Oker Harim scholar. They did not know which one to choose. So, they sent a letter to the sages in Eretz Yisrael asking them for advice.

They replied that Sinai is better than Oker Harim because at least a Sinai can field any question that comes to him from any aspect in Torah, whereas an Oker Harim may not even know what the subject matter is.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that the two interpretations in Reish Lakish (physical and spiritual sacrifice) parallel the two approaches in learning Torah (Sinai and Oker Harim). The first interpretation of Reish Lakish was that a person must sacrifice his body, meaning, withholding physical comforts from himself to grow in Torah. This interpretation is connected to Sinai because the less time we spend on pampering our bodies, the more time we have to learn through the entirety of Torah.

However, the second interpretation of Reish Lakish was that a person must sacrifice his soul, meaning, to think deeply in Torah and not just read it superficially. Delving to the bottom of Torah is, by definition, the Oker Harim approach.

All this information will help us answer a famous question. A pasuk, regarding the time that Hashem gave us the Torah, says that the Jewish people stood "Bitachtis" (at the bottom of) the mountain (Parshas Yisro, 19:17). Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says that the word "Bitachtis" literally means "underneath." This teaches us that Hashem ripped Mount Sinai out of the ground and held it suspended over the Jewish people's heads and gave them an ultimatum. If they would accept the Torah, Hashem would return the mountain back where He got it from. But, if they refused the Torah, Hashem was going to crush them all under the mountain (Shabbos, chap. 9, "Amar Rebbi Akiva", pg. 88a). It may not come as a surprise that they accepted the Torah.

The Tosafists (ibid, divrei hamaschil "Kafa") ask why it was necessary for Hashem to threaten them into acceptance. The Jews had already said, "Na'aseh V'nishma" (we will do, and we will obey; Parshas Mishpatim, 24:7). One does not have to threaten a volunteer. Why, then, did Hashem have to encourage them into acceptance in such a threatening way?

In the past, we shared a variety of answers to this question. However, the Shvilei Pinchas suggests a novel approach. The Jews only said "Na'aseh V'nishma" in acceptance of the approach of Sinai. After all, they were standing at Sinai. So, they only accepted the approach of Torah study represented by the name Sinai which is to obtain a breadth of Torah.

However, the Jewish people never accepted upon themselves the other approach of delving into Torah deeply. Therefore, Hashem had to threaten them into that acceptance as well. To demonstrate God's intention, it became show-and-tell time. Hashem literally uprooted a mountain. That's called "Oker Harim." The message was clear. Hashem expected them to learn Torah deeply as well.

Parenthetically, the term "Oker Harim" is in plural form (to uproot mountains). How, then, can that term be used to describe God's uprooting of Mount Sinai? Mount Sinai was just one mountain? Apparently, the term should have been "Oker Har" (to uproot just one mountain) in the singular.

The Yalkut Reuveini (Parshas Yisro, #50) says something which answers this question. He says that at the time God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, Mount Moriah (otherwise known as the Temple Mount) picked itself up and made a dash for the wilderness at Sinai so that the Torah would be given on it.

Hashem combined Mount Moriah with Mount Sinai and gave the Torah on both mountains simultaneously. Therefore, when Hashem lifted Mount Sinai over their heads, Mount Moriah was lifted together with it. Thus, the term "Oker Harim", in the plural, is completely accurate. After Hashem put the mountains back down, Mount Moriah returned to its place in Yerushalayim.

Maybe this explains why so many people walk to the Kotel on Shavuos morning. When we reaccept the Torah on Shavuos morning, subconsciously, we want to be next to the mountain upon which the Torah was given in the first place and relive the experience.

Perhaps we could add that this explains the fourth stanza in the Shabbos day song "Yom Shabbason" (written by Rebbi Yehuda Halevi, b. 1075 Spain, d. 1141 Jerusalem) which says, "He spoke amid His holiness at Mount Moriah, (saying) 'The Seventh day - remember and safeguard." This means that Hashem commanded us to observe Shabbos on Mount Moriah.

The problem is that the mitzva to observe Shabbos is found in the Ten Commandments, and the Ten Commandments was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, not on Mount Moriah. What is Rebbi Yehuda Halevi talking about?

The answer is that Hashem combined Mount Moriah with Mount Sinai. Therefore, the Ten commandments, including the mitzva about observing Shabbos, was given on Mount Moriah as well. This is what Rebbi Yehuda Halevi was referring to.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains why the first Tannaic Sage mentioned in all of Mishna is Rebbi Eliezer (see Berachos, chap. 1, "M'eimasai", Mishna 1, pg. 2a). You see, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai had five students. One of them was Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos (this is the same Rebbi Eliezer mentioned in the very first Mishna), and one of them was Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch. Each student's gifts were listed in the Mishna.

Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos was described as a "cemented cistern (a tank or other vessel for storing water) that does not lose a drop." Rebbi Elazar ben Aruich was described as a "spring flowing stronger and stronger."

Then, a debate broke out with respect to which of these two students was greater. The Tanna Kamma (first opinion) said that Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos would outweigh all the other scholars put together, whereas Aba Shaul said that Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch would outweigh everybody else. What were the Tanna Kamma and Aba Shaul arguing about?

The Machzor Vitri (Avos, Rabbenu Simcha d"Vitri, French Talmudist, disciple of Rashi, d. 1105) and the Ruach Chaim (Avos, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, b. 1729, d. 1821, chief disciple of the Vilna Gaon) explain that when Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos was described as a "cemented cistern which doesn't lose a drop," it meant that he was a Sinai. The drops of water represent the pieces of Torah. Since he never lost a drop, it meant that he never forgot a subject matter. In other words, he possessed all the drops of Torah. He had an incredible breadth of Torah.

However, when Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch was described as a "spring flowing stronger and stronger," it meant that he was an "Oker Harim." This is because a spring of water originates from way beneath the earth. This represents a depth of Torah.

Therefore, the Tanna Kamma maintained that Sinai is better, therefore, Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos was the greatest. On the other hand, Aba Shaul maintained that Oker Harim is better, therefore, Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch was the greatest.

By the way, a support to this notion that Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos was a Sinai is found in a Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:20) which says that when Rebbi Yehoshua came to visit the Beis Medrash of Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos, he saw a stone in the middle of the room upon which Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos would sit on and learn Torah. Rebbi Yehoshua walked over to that stone, gave it a kiss, and said, "This stone is like Mount Sinai, and the one who sits upon it is like the Holy Ark."

By comparing the stone to Mount Sinai, he wasn't just saying that Torah came down on that stone like it came down on Mount Sinai. Rather, he was also hinting that Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos was a Sinai type of scholar.

Now, when Rebbi Yehudah Hanasi (who redacted and edited the Mishna) presented the debate about which scholar was greater, he mentioned the first opinion anonymously. We referred to him as the Tanna Kamma (the first opinion). However, the second opinion was mentioned by name, Aba Shaul. The reason why the first opinion was mentioned anonymously was so that we should get the impression that there was a consensus of sages who held that position. That's why there is no specific name mentioned, because there were too many names to mention. This tells us that the halacha is like the first opinion, because when an individual (Aba Shaul) disagrees with the majority of sages (the Tanna Kamma), the law always follows the majority view (Berachos, chap. 1, "M'eimasai", pg. 9a).

This explains why Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi chose Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos to be mentioned first in all of Mishna. It was to show that the approach of Sinai is best (Shvilei Pinchas).

In fact, the scholars in Eretz Yisrael were able to paskin for the people in Bavel that they should appoint the Sinai Rabbi as the new Rosh Yeshiva because the scholars in Eretz Yisrael looked into the Mishna which was written in Eretz Yisrael and noticed that Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos was mentioned first. They understood that this was meant to teach us that Sinai is the greater approach.

The scholars in Eretz Yisrael also noticed the Mishna in Pirkei Avon in which the Tanna Kamma was mentioned anonymously, teaching us that we maintain that Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos outweighs all the others because of his being a Sinai (Shvilei Pinchas).

In the final analysis, we should strive to be both. After all, Hashem uprooted Mount Sinai to stress the importance of Oker Harim, even though Sinai is greater.

Therefore, practically speaking, we should all try to set up two times to study Torah. This could be twice a day or twice a week. These sessions could be by ourselves, with a study partner, or in a class. But, one of these two sessions should be dedicated to covering ground, the Sinai approach.

The other session should be dedicated to delving into the topic deeply, the Oker Harim approach. In this way we will be living up to Hashem's expectation of becoming both broad and deep Torah scholars.

So, may we all be blessed with the strength to make the necessary sacrifices in order to truly obtain and maintain the Torah, becoming Sinais and Oker Harims, and thus deserve to witness revelation once again when we will be reunited with Reish Lakish, Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos, Rebbi Elazar ben Aruch, Rav Yosef, and Rabba.