For the Jews, There Was Light (ver. 2)

Related to the Ramban’s position, about holiness being about following the Torah’s ideals, and not stopping at the letter of its laws…

There is an enigmatic statement in the Talmud (Nedarim 81a, Koren edition (Links to an external site.), original in bold, with translations of Rabbi Edin Steinsaltz’s explanatory insertions):

Ravina says: They are punished because they do not first recite a blessing over the Torah before commencing their studies. As Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Who is the wise man that may understand this, and who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken, that he may declare it, for what the land is perished and laid waste like a wilderness, so that none passes through” (Jeremiah 9:11)? This matter, the question as to why Eretz Yisrael was destroyed, was asked of the Sages, i.e., “the wise man,” and of the prophets, “he to whom the mouth of the Lord has spoken,” but they could not explain it.

The matter remained a mystery until the Holy One, Blessed be He, Himself explained why Eretz Yisrael was laid waste, as it is written in the next verse: “And the Lord said: Because they have forsaken My Torah which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked therein” (Jeremiah 9:12). It would appear that “have not obeyed My voice” is the same as “nor walked therein.” Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: The expression “nor walked therein” means that they do not first recite a blessing over the Torah, and they are therefore liable to receive the severe punishments listed in the verse.

Note the quote of Jeremiah and the mention of the prophets being puzzled. They are discussing the destruction of the first Temple. Jeremiah witnessed its destruction. And prophecy ended centuries before the fall of the second Temple.

But the obvious question is: Really? The Temple destroyed, the commonwealth ended, uncountable people killed. For what? Because they didn’t say the blessing before studying Torah. I mean, it implies they were even studying Torah! The scale seems entirely off kilter.

However, the Talmud gives another reason for the destruction of the first Temple, one that doesn’t seem so surprising. Yoma 9b:

The Tosefta continues with a discussion of the sins of the Jewish people over the generations: Due to what reason was the First Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there were three matters that existed in the First Temple: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed.

However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.

(Sin’at chinam, which the Koren Edition translates as “wanton hatred”, and is often translated as “baseless hatred” literally means “free hatred”. I like the translation “pointless hatred”, as it includes even hatred that has a valid cause, but I am carrying it around for not useful purpose.)

Okay, so destruction of a society of idolatrous lecherous murderers seems just. And why would G-d want their worship at His Temple? Yes, that all fits.

So what’s this about not saying the blessing before studying Torah?

I think the sages traced things back to the first point of departure. How did we get to the point where society had rampant idolatry, sexual immorality and murder? It all started when people studied Torah without the blessing first. In other words, they didn’t bring the right attitude to their Torah study.

And to recall something we saw in section 2.1 — Rava is twice quoted in the Talmud as teaching that someone who “goes to the left” can turn the Torah into a poison. Torah study and observance is not a guarantee. They give us a tool-set; but we have to choose to use the tool-set for Hashem’s aims. Torah can be a medicine or a poison — it is up to how we use it.

Going back to our opening Ramban… The culture of the First Temple stopped paying attention to the purposes of the Torah, Hashem’s Plan for our lives, and even their Torah study became part of a culture laden with the worst sins.

Now let’s look at a verse in the megillah (Esther 8:16, which may be familiar from Havdalah):

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר׃

The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.

Which the Talmud expounds (Megillah 16b, I will gain be eliding the talmud’s proof-texts):

Rav Yehuda said: “Light”; this is referring to the Torah that they once again studied…. “Gladness” [simḥa]; this is referring to the Festivals that they once again observed…. “Joy” [sasson]; this is referring to circumcision, as they once again circumcised their sons.  “Honor”; this is referring to phylacteries, which they once again donned. And it was taught in a baraitaRabbi Eliezer the Great said: This is referring to the phylacteries worn on the head. Haman had banned the fulfillment of all the mitzvot mentioned, but upon Haman’s demise the Jews returned to their observance.

But this teaching is also cryptic. If the megillah wanted to say “And the Jews again had Torah study, the Jewish festivals, circumcision, and tefillin” why didn’t it just say so? Why the cryptic, if poetic, language?

The story of Purim happens around the time of the building of the Second Temple. Exactly how the two relate involves thorny questions of dating the whole period. But there wouldn’t have been a Second Temple if we hadn’t fixed the problems of the first.

Which means that the flaw to be fixed wasn’t the letter of the law, but the attitude toward the law.

So, had the megillah just said that the Jews now had Torah, holidays, beris milah and tefillin, it wouldn’t have made the desired point. Yes, the Jews went back to Torah study. But now they made the blessing first. The Torah was a light for them. The holidays were taken up again not just as dry observances, but with simchah. Circumcisions were occasions of joy and doning tefillin was done with a feeling of glory.

This is, after all, Nachmanides’ key to holiness.

And as the verse concludes…


(This is the version I sent my  webinar va’ad on Sunday, written to emphasize points we were studying from Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction and Widen Your Tent. Version 1 focuses more on Purim’s relationship to Shavuos.)

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