Shabbat Parashat Vayigash| 5767
From the works of Hagaon Harav Shaul Yisraeli zt”l - Study vs. Action - From Perakim B’Machshevet Yisrael, pp. 278-9
“Is study greater or is action greater?” This question of the relationship between the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot was already asked in the study halls of the Tanna’im. It has a philosophical element to it but also a practical element. Certainly, the question is not to imply that one should belittle either study or action. However, putting the stress on one of these values, while seeing the other as a medium to attain the former or secondary in value, will cause the preference of one and the weakening of the other.
Chazal’s answer, “Study is greater, as it brings on action,” should not be understood superficially but requires explanation. The Rambam understands that we are to prefer the intellectual as only through it can we be assured that there will be proper action, as well. According to the Sefer Ha’ikarim, the statement is intended to put the stress equally on both values. As he says: “The connection of the two is the main thing.”
This classical question resurfaced in connection to the dispute regarding the Hasidic movement. Among the greatest Hasidic leaders were those who viewed Torah study as no more than a mitzva among mitzvot. The Ba’al Shem Tov is quoted as saying: “What can I do? I have no time to learn. I have to serve the Blessed Creator.” The Mitnagdim (opponents of the Hasidic Movement) saw a need to stress the superiority of the mitzva to study Torah. “The existence of all of the worlds depends on the breath of those who are involved in its study.” “The most desired and loftiest persona is one who is fit to be called a talmid chacham (Torah scholar).”
However, we should note that in this matter there are significant differences between different Hasidic “courts.” The Tanya (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe) extolled Torah study: “Torah knowledge and conception” has an “extra, greater, wonderful value beyond those of active mitzvot.” (It is interesting that he counts spoken Torah study as one of the active mitzvot.) The courts of Kutzk and Ger also put great stress on Torah study.
On the other hand, Hasidism was wary to demand the proper intent behind the study. The criticism of that which they perceived as over-stress of Torah study concentrated on the phenomenon of study in order to attain honor. Similarly, regarding active mitzvot, the Noam Elimelech said: “If a person does an active mitzva and does not focus his heart with fear and love, it will not rise up.” The reason is that “whatever … remains an independent thing in the presence of the Almighty does not receive a life spirit from His Holiness.” The Mitnagdim actually interpreted the concept of lo lishma (doing something not for its own sake) differently. They also reasoned that it is a mistake to discourage someone from learning because of the possibility that his motivations will not be 100% pure. As the Nefesh Hachayim wrote: “Heaven forbid pushing away [the opportunity] to do any detail of an action … because of the lack of purity of thought.”
It is interesting to note how, over time, the two camps have drawn closer together. Later Hasidic thinkers have begun to stress the centrality of Torah study, similarly to the Mitnagdim. And in the non-Hasidic world, the rise of the Mussar movement has put greater emphasis on purity of thought as a basic foundation of one’s religious duty. “If one does not learn lishma, his learning is not pure and refined, and he is not included in ‘those who study Torah’” (Rav Yerucham from Mir). This is not to say that there is a retreat from the centrality of the need to study Torah. Rather, “the status of one who is knowledgeable in halacha is not deserved unless he places his fear of Hashem before his wisdom” (Chazon Ish).
Despite the closing of the gap between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, significant points of difference remain between them. However, there is now more basis for mutual cooperation.
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This edition of
Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of
R’ Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld o.b.m.
Hemdat Yamim is also dedicated by Les & Ethel Sutker of Chicago, Illinois
in loving memory of Max and Mary Sutker and Louis and Lillian Klein,z”l.
May their memory be a blessing!