Mattot – The Purpose of Learning Torah

The Parsha records the battle between the Jewish people and Midian. In the midst of its account, the Torah mentions that the non-Jewish Prophet Bilaam was killed in the war.[1] 

The Midrash[2] states that there were two wise men in the world, one Jewish, one non-Jewish, Achitophel[3] and Bilaam, and both died prematurely.  The Midrash explains that the reason for this is that their knowledge was not a gift from HaShem, rather they ‘grabbed it’.  Because they grabbed it, it did not save them from early death.

It is not immediately apparent what it means to ‘grab’ wisdom.  Maran, Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit’a, cites a  Passuk in Mishlei that states that “HaShem gives wisdom”, but explains that HaShem only gives wisdom to someone who toils to acquire wisdom – when he toils to acquire it he will receive it as a gift, and if he does not toil, he will acquire wisdom. 

This is based on the Talmud that tells us that if someone says he toiled and did not acquire Torah then he should not be believed, and if he says that he did not toil and acquired Torah then he should also not be believed, but if he says that he toiled and acquired, then he should be believed.[4] 

We see from the Talmud that one can only attain true wisdom if he works to acquire it.  Accordingly, what does it mean that Bilaam and Achitophel ‘grabbed’ the Torah, and as a result it was not a gift from HaShem – if they toiled to learn it, then what did they do wrong, and why is their learning called ‘grabbing’?

Rav Kanievsky explains that a person must toil in Torah in order to merit that HaShem give him Torah knowledge.  However, there are times when halacha forbids learning Torah.  If a person learns Torah in such times, then he is not fulfilling the Mitzva of Talmud Torah and is in fact transgressing HaShem’s word through his Torah learning.  Such a person may ‘know’ a great deal of Torah but he won’t receive pure Torah knowledge from HaShem and will not gain from his knowledge. 

Rav Kanievsky gives examples of this phenomenon – learning regular Torah on Tisha B’Av[5] or when one is in his week of mourning[6], learning during Chazaras HaShatz[7], or other times during prayer, in such ways that are forbidden by halacha.[8]   Rav Kanievsky seems to understand that the wisdom that was acquired by Bilaam and Achitophel was acquired in forbidden ways and this is the meaning of ‘grabbing’ wisdom.

This explanation teaches us the proper perspective towards Torah learning.  We know that ‘Talmud Torah keneged kulam ‘– that Torah learning is equivalent in its importance to all the other Mitzvos combined.  The basic explanation for this is that without Torah learning, one cannot fulfil any of the other Mitzvos, and therefore it is a prerequisite to Torah observance. 

On a deeper level, learning Torah involves studying how HaShem, looks at the world, so to speak – by learning Torah on a deep level a person aligns his thinking and values with those of the Master of the Universe.

However, a person must remember that the Torah learning is not an end in and of itself – its ultimate purpose is to bring a person closer to HaShem.  But if a person learns Torah in ways that are against Ratson HaShem (HaShem’s will) because they contradict halacha, then the whole purpose of the Torah learning is lost. 

This was the failing in Achitophel who was an extremely learned man, but used his learning for negative purposes, and not to become close to HaShem.  In a similar vein Chazal generally encourage learning Torah not for the right reasons so that eventually one will come to learn Torah for the right reasons.[9] 

However, the commentaries explain that if one is learning in order to use his knowledge to harm other people, then Chazal view that in a terrible light and say that it is preferable that such a person was not born.[10] 

Rav Kanievsky’s explanation reminds us to be careful to learn in the permitted fashion, and on a deeper level, to keep the correct perspective of the purpose of our learning – to bring us closer to HaShem.

Notes and Sources

[1] Bamidbar, 31:8.
[2] Quoted by Rav Chaim Kanievsky, ‘Taamah dekrah’, Bamidbar, 31:8.
[3] He was an advisor to Avshalom in his rebellion against David HaMelech, and when he realized that Avshalom’s rebellion would fail, he killed himself.
[4] Megillah, 6b.
[5] It is forbidden to learn Torah on Tisha B’Av because learning is joyful and Tisha B’Av is a time to be sad.  It is only permitted to learn sections of Torah that are sad, such as the laws of mourning, or sections in the Prophets that involve sad prophecies.
[6] The same halachas apply to a mourner as those of Tisha B’Av, because on Tisha B’Av we have the status of mourners.
[7] The repetition of the Shemoneh Esreih where the members of the minyan must listen to the blessings of the Chazzan and answer ‘Amen’ to each blessing.
[8] Taama Dekrah, Bamidbar, 31:8.
[9] See Nazir, 23b.
[10] Brachos, 17a.

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