One day someone told HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l about
a certain avreich — in fact his son-in-law
— who had made a medical discovery that might prove to
be a cure for cancer. R' Moshe responded that even if it was
a sure cure for cancer, "is ess nisht vert di bittul
Torah" (it would not be worth the bittul Torah
that it caused). (Cited by HaRav Michel Shurkin in Megged
Giv'os Olom, vol. I, and confirmed with Rabbi Y. Weinfeld,
the source given there)
How do we understand this story?
Some people have a very high opinion of the importance of a
cure for cancer, since it is obviously of such great benefit
to so many people. It is an accomplishment they can
understand and relate to, as perhaps among the highest
possible chessed services one could render. As loyal
Jews, they also acknowledge the value of learning Torah which
is so strongly stressed in our tradition. They recognize that
learning Torah is important, but do not consider it
If told such a story, they would be surprised — and
perhaps even shocked — since they would interpret R'
Moshe's statement as assessing the value of a cure for cancer
as being lower than what they regard as the value of learning
Torah. They would assume that they and R' Moshe share the
same regard for learning Torah, and that his statement
belittles the value of a cure for cancer. They would regard
the statement as sort of an "ivory tower" view of the world,
valuing abstract learning over accomplishment in the "real
In fact the chiddush here is in the other direction.
As a leader of the Jewish people and as a prominent
posek, R' Moshe certainly understood and recognized
fully the value of a cure for cancer. He knew how many lives
would be saved and how much suffering it would relieve. His
constant involvement with halachic questions pertaining to
treatment and the concomitant exposure to the pain and
tribulation of all those involved, undoubtedly gave him a
perspective on the value of such an accomplishment that was
shared by very few.
Yet nonetheless, he considered the bittul Torah to be
price that does not justify discovering a cure for cancer.
This does not minimize or trivialize the value of such an
achievement, but rather it recognizes Torah learning as
something much greater still.
A true appreciation of Torah opens vistas that are simply not
visible to those who are "empirical" and only believe in what
they can see or feel. It does not trivialize or belittle the
world of the body, but adds the world of the spirit on top of
It is only by properly appreciating the world of the spirit
that we can properly value the world of the body. If our
entire world is the material world, all human effort is
If your scale only ranges from one to five, even those things
that you place at the top will be undervalued. Humanists who
revere humanity but deny G-d can never properly value human
life. If the true scale, the scale of the Torah, ranges from
one to a hundred, and the Torah places human life at, say,
seventy-five, that is fifteen times higher than the humanists
on their scale of five, even though it is considerably below
the top of the Torah scale of values. (The choice of these
numbers is arbitrary, and merely meant to illustrate the
point. Their true magnitudes may be off in either
Perhaps this is why even such a "humanistic" mitzvah such as
"Love your neighbor as yourself" is followed by the words,
"Ani Hashem" (Vayikra 19:18). We must not forget
the true scale, even when we focus on our fellows.
The gemora says that we should not travel with an
am ho'oretz since he does not recognize that Torah is
"our life and the length of our days" (Devorim 30:20).
If he does not value his own life, the gemora
explains, he will certainly not value the lives of others. If
he does not live the Torah, if he does not form his values
from the Torah, if his horizons are limited to the material
world, he will not even recognize the value of his own life.
If he does not internalize the scale of Torah, he will not be
able to appreciate the value of his own life and the true
potential that it encompasses.
If we understand the true scale of things our horizons will
not be artificially limited. If we appreciate others we will
appreciate ourselves, and if we appreciate ourselves we will
be sure to do teshuvoh during the upcoming Days of