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11 Elul 5765 - September 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly
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Opinion & Comment
The Fallacy of Limited Horizons

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 overwhelmingly so.

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 world."

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.

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 trivialized.

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 direction.)

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 Judgment.


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