“Creed or Deed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The two opening chapters of parashat Emor, Leviticus 21 and 22, deal with laws that pertain to the Kohanim (priests) and to safeguarding the sanctity of the priestly gifts and the sacred offerings. The final verses of Leviticus 22 concern the eligibility of the sacred offerings, and various other rules regarding these offerings.

In concluding the section dealing with the qualifications for offerings, the Torah issues a general demand to care for and fulfill the Divine commandments (Leviticus 22:31), “Oosh’mar’tem mitz’voh’tai, va’ah’see’tem oh’tam, ah’nee Ha’shem,” And you shall observe my commandments and follow them, I am the L-rd.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) explains that the word, “Oosh’mar’tem,” you shall observe, refers to the study of commandments, while the word “Va’ah’see’tem,” you shall perform them, refers to actually doing the commandments (based on Torat Kohanim, 9:3).

The Mizrachi and Siftei Chachamim (commentaries on Rashi) explain that “observing,” refers to the study of the commandments, for it implies keeping something in mind and an awareness that has yet to be fulfilled while “performing” the commandment is the outcome of that awareness, implemented in its proper time.

The Talmud in tractate Kiddushim 40b records the following seminal discussion:

Rabbi Tarfon and the others [scholars] were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza’s house in Lydda (Lod) when a question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater for it leads to practice. Then they all answered and said: Study is greater, for it leads to action.

Some of the scholars note that this discussion among the rabbis actually had critical historical ramifications, since the discussion took place during the Hadrianic persecutions and represented a practical problem. Both study and observance had been forbidden by the Romans. The question then was, should risks be taken sooner for study or for practical observance?

The discussion regarding learning or doing also has significant relevance regarding establishing educational priorities. The conclusion that education should come first is due to the fact that studying is itself a mitzvah and brings one to observance, whereas observance doesn’t naturally lead to learning.

In an interesting side note, the Tosafot (commentators on the Talmud) debate the issue of whether teaching others is preferable to doing and performing onself. While these scholars conclude that teaching others takes preference over deeds, the Sheh’iltiyot (early Jewish legal code) and the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham al-Asevilli, 1248-1330, leading Spanish rabbi) conclude that practical observance takes precedence over teaching others (see note in Steinsaltz, Kiddushin 40b ).

The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi of Pressburg, leader of Hungarian Jewry, 1762-1839) provides an original interpretation to the verse, “And you shall observe My commandments and perform them.” The Chatam Sofer translates the word “Oosh’mar’tem,” to mean that one should wait and look forward to the moment one is able to observe the mitzvot. As support for this interpretation, the Chatam Sofer cites the moving last words of Rabbi Akiva before his martyrdom (Brachot 61b), “All my life I was upset that I could not fulfill the verse, ‘To love G-d with all my soul–even if He takes your soul,’ and I said to myself, ‘When will my chance come to fulfill it?'”

The Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein,1860-1941), records the full citation referred to by Rashi from Torat Kohanim which reads, “You shall observe my commandments…this teaches that anyone who is not learned cannot perform my commandments,” and explains that because of the lack of knowledge, the ignorant person does not know how to guard himself properly and how to behave within the strictures of the Torah. This, says the Torah Temimah, is similar to what the Mishnah in Avot 2:6 declares, “V’loh am ha’aretz chah’seed,” An illiterate person cannot be a pious person.

In his wonderful commentary to Pirkei Avot, known as Ethics from Sinai, Irving Bunim implies that not only is the illiterate person ignorant of the ways of the Torah, but he cannot be truly pious beyond the letter of the law to fathom its spirit. “He simply does not know enough of the Torah to deepen his grasp of what the Al-mighty requires of him.” This very often leads unlearned people to take the path of least resistance by choosing the most stringent position of Jewish law in order not to violate any of the strictures. This practice often results in unpleasant consequences creating a burdensome atmosphere for those who dwell in the household of such a person.

Once again, we find ourselves returning to the theme that illiteracy and lack of Jewish education as one of the greatest threats to Jewish posterity. One who practices Jewish rites and rituals robotically is most often left feeling empty. There certainly is no joy in that type of observance. That is why a proper Jewish education is necessary to understand the fundamental principles governing the rituals and observances, so that one gets a sense of meaningfulness and relevance when practicing. Without this type of enrichment, one is left with a vapid sense of Judaism, reminiscent of what our ancestors in the wilderness said regarding the manna (Numbers 11:6), “V’ah’ta naf’shay’noo y’vay’sha, ain kohl,” But now our souls are parched, there is nothing!

Jewish educators must take pains to not only impart information, but to convey Torah in a positive and joyous manner, so that observance of the Divine commandments becomes a truly exhilarating experience.

May you be blessed.

Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, is observed this year on the 3rd of Iyar, Wednesday evening, May 7th, which is known as Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and all day Thursday, May 8th.