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Rabbi Yonason Sacks
Rabbi Yonason Sacks

Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim

In the introduction to Ein Yaakov, the author cites a classic Tannaic dispute pertaining to what verse constitutes a klal gadol baTorah - a great Torah principle. While Ben Zoma identifies Shema Yisroel as the paradigmatic klal gadol baTorah, Ben Nanas cites v'ahavta l'reacha kamocha and Shimon Ben Pazi quotes es hakeves ha'echad ta'aseh baboker. Perhaps one could suggest that these three opinions reflect the three pillars of the world described in our mishnah: Shema Yisroel refers to the paramount importance of Torah; es hakeves ha'echad ta'aseh baboker alludes to the avodah; and v'ahavta l'reacha kamocha highlights gemilus chasadim.

While the opinions of Ben Zoma and Ben Nanas are quite understandable, Shimon Ben Pazi's citation appears to demand explanation. Why does Shimon Ben Pazi overlook broader, more universalistic aphorisms in favor of a seemingly specific and technical halacha pertaining to the daily Mikdash service?

Perhaps Shimon Ben Pazi wishes to convey that the foundation of the Torah rests upon consistency and persistence in the service of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Just as the korban tamid is brought twice daily - day-in and day-out - our commitment to Torah and mitzvos must always be present, regardless of emotional reluctance or personal hindrance. Indeed, the Mesilas Yesharim (ch. 25) teaches that true yir'as Shamayim can only be obtained, "berov ha'hasmada baTorah u'derache'ha bli hefsek - through unwavering commitment to the study of Torah and its ways." Only through constant contemplation and emulation of the ways of HaKadosh Baruch Hu can a person truly imprint the seal of yir'as Shamayim upon himself.

Perhaps one could suggest that these three pillars correspond to the Beis HaMikdash, as well. The Netziv teaches that the aron kodesh and the menorah of the Mishkan represented the Torah. As the storage site for the luchos received at Har Sinai, the aron kodesh represented the Torah b'ksav, while the illumination and clarity produced by the menorah represented the Torah she'b'al peh (see Berachos 57a and Midrash Rabbah Bereishis 91). As such, these two keilim correspond to the first pillar of the world. The Rashbatz adds that, as the ultimate site for the offering of sacrifices, the mizbe'ach represents avodah, or the second pillar of the world. Finally, the Ramban (Shemos 25:24) explains that the shulchan represents the support and sustenance that HaKadosh Baruch Hu provides for Bnei Yisroel. Accordingly, the Shulchan may be seen as representative of the third pillar of the world, gemilus chasadim.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that although Torah, avodah and gemilus chasadim are presented as three distinct pillars, the pillar of Torah essentially defines the other two. If one does not know the Torah's laws, one cannot possibly perform true avodah or true gemilus chasadim. Before the Torah was given, for example, Adam harishon, Kayin, and Hevel offered valid korbanos to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Once the Torah was given, however, such avodah would be wholly rejected as abominable shechutei chutz - offerings prepared outside of the Beis Hamikdash. Similarly, before the Torah was given, lending with interest would be considered an act of kindness (see Taz, Yoreah Deah 160:1); subsequent to the giving of the Torah, one who lends with interest does not merit revival after death. Rav Chaim also cites the story of R' Akiva, who, upon first beginning to learn Torah at a late age, crossed a meis mitzvah (unattended corpse) on the road and, in an attempted act of kindness, carried it for several miles to facilitate its burial. Only after becoming more learned in Torah did R' Akiva realize that meis mitzvah koneh mekomo - an unattended corpse acquires its location and should be buried on site, recognizing that his attempted act of kindness was actually an act of cruelty. From these examples, Rav Chaim proves the essential role of the Torah in defining what exactly constitutes proper avodah and gemilus chasadim.

In discussing the difference between actions performed before and after the giving of the Torah, Rav Chaim cites the well-known teaching of Chazal that the avos observed the mitzvos of the Torah long before it was given at Sinai. Rav Chaim explains that the avos observed the mitzvos not because they were expressly commanded to do so, but rather because they perceived the cataclysmic powers of the mitzvos to effect change in both their world as well as the upper worlds. Because their performance was rooted in their own understanding and intuition, the avos were able to deviate from the mitzvos in specific situations. For example, Yaakov avinu married two sisters, despite the explicit violation mentioned in the Torah, because he understood the monumental importance of such an action in the ultimate scheme of the world. Once the mitzvos were formally commanded at Har Sinai, however, no individual would ever be permitted to consciously violate any mitzvah. No matter how clearly one understood his role, the binding nature of Har Sinai demands unwavering adherence to each and every mitzvah (see Nefesh HaChaim 1:21).

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