This article was originally published 20 years ago.
According to the gemora (Sanhedrin 26), Yeshaya Hanovi calls the Torah tushiyah: "[The Torah] is wonderful in counsel and excellent in tushiyah" (Yeshaya 28:29), suggesting that the Torah weakens man's physical power (tushiyah is related to mateshes, "weakening"). We are accustomed to understanding this simply: day-and-night Torah study, exerting ourselves to our maximum, saps our strength and weakens us.
If this is Chazal's intention, what is the Torah's extraordinary quality that Yeshaya the novi wants to inform us of? Would it not have been more appropriate to praise the Torah for making us wiser or for refining our souls? What special importance is there in that Torah study devitalizes us?
Besides this obvious question, other statements of Chazal indeed state the opposite. The gemora (Kesuvos 62a) narrates that R' Abahu would lean on his two servants when walking. It happened that when the three were in a bath- house a deep cavity opened up underneath them and they were all about to fall into it to their death. R' Abahu picked up the two servants with one hand and, with the other, while holding them, climbed up a pole to safety.
Another story mentioned in that gemora tells that when R' Yochonon was walking up some steps he leaned on Rav Ami and Rav Assi to assist him. A step suddenly collapsed, and so to stop them from falling R' Yochonon carried them away from the danger. Although both R' Abahu and R' Yochonon were gedolei Torah they undeniably had tremendous physical strength. Is that not a contradiction to what we learn from the gemora in Sanhedrin?
I remember that once Mori Verabi Maran HaRav Eliyohu Lopian zt'l, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Kfar Chassidim, told us that when he was a young talmid studying in Yeshivas Lomza in Poland he was so strong that once, when in a joyful mood, he challenged his friends to push down his raised arm placed on the table. No one was able. R' Eli said that he could even bend a coin between his fingers. Such physical strength is apparently incompatible with the statement of Chazal that the Torah weakens those who study it.
We encounter another difficulty in parshas VaYeitze. The Torah tells us that the shepherds would lay a gigantic rock over the local well, and only their combined strength could dislodge it. When Yaakov Ovinu saw Rochel arriving with the sheep, "Yaakov went near and rolled the stone from the well's mouth and watered the flock of Lavan, his mother's brother" (Bereishis 29:11). Rashi (ibid.) writes in the name of Midrash Rabbah, "Yaakov rolled away the stone as a person removes a cork from a bottle, which teaches us that he was [physically] powerful."
This statement of Chazal that "this teaches us he was powerful," indicates that Yaakov's ability to remove the heavy rock was not a miracle. If he had succeeded in rolling away the rock because of a miracle, how could that teach us "he was powerful"? But do not Chazal tell us that the Torah weakens a person? How could Yaakov Ovinu possess such strength after he had just finished studying for fourteen years in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever? Yaakov was a diligent student, who studied continuously and never even slept in a bed (see Rashi on the posuk "and he lay down in that place to sleep" (Bereishis 28:11).
In order to resolve these grave difficulties I must first cite an anecdote from the gemora (Bovo Metzia 84a). When Resh Lokish was head of a group of robbers he saw R' Yochonon, who had been swimming, standing on the other side of the Jordan River. In order to rob R' Yochonon, he jumped at him from his side of the Jordan. R' Yochonon was amazed to see such incredible strength, and told Resh Lokish: "You should use your strength for Torah." He proposed to Resh Lokish that instead of using his might for useless and improper endeavors, it is preferable to employ it for Torah study. Resh Lokish embraced R' Yochonon's counsel and then, when he wanted to jump back to fetch his possessions he could not. Rashi explains that after he accepted the yoke of Torah upon himself he became weak — as Chazal teach us that the Torah weakens a person.
Why should Resh Lokish have become weak already at this stage? He had not even started studying Torah; all he had done was to resolve to start. He had not yet exerted himself in the sort of Torah study that could possibly weaken him.
We learn from this a pivotal principle about Torah study: A person who feels and understands the paramount importance of our holy Torah utilizes all his innate powers to engage himself exclusively in Torah study and is unable to waste his strength on insignificant matters.
Let us demonstrate this through a moshol. Yankel, a nine-year-old child, returns home from cheder on a sweltering day. He is exhausted and sweating from the unbearable heat and lies down to rest up. His mother asks him to go to the nearby grocery store to buy something she needs. "But Mother," Yankel answers, "it's impossible for me to help you until I rest for a quarter of an hour."
Suddenly Yankel hears from far away the shrilling sirens of a fire engine and an ambulance. In the wink of an eye Yankel leaps out of bed and is outside. He runs energetically in the direction he heard this bewitching clamor.
Yankel did not lie when he told his mother a few minutes before that he is too tired to walk to the grocery store on an errand. Everything depends on what is important, on what a person deems worthy to use his strength. For something he considers inconsequential, he is indeed too weak.
The Torah weakens a person because, although he retains all his previous physical powers, when all he wants is Torah study he does not find any reason to use these powers for other, unworthy matters. It is if he has become weakened in relation to those undeserving matters.
R' Yochonon told Resh Lokish, when he saw him using all of his strength to leap across the Jordan River, that it was more appropriate for him to direct this strength to Torah study. After Resh Lokish decided to study Torah, he was unable to use his remarkable strength for such a meaningless act as jumping across the river.
Now we understand well how it could be that R' Abahu and R' Yochonon were strong enough to grab their assistants and pull them to safety. It is a mistake to think that Torah study actually depletes a person's strength; rather talmidei chachomim save their physical power for Torah study. The moment these Amoroim needed to rescue their assistants, they used their considerable physical strength to do so.
Yaakov Ovinu too was not weakened by studying with awesome hasmodoh for fourteen years at the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. Rather, because of his tremendous love for Torah he utilized all his phenomenal strength to toil over his studies. However, when he noticed Rachel's qualities he decided that for the sake of his spiritual future and so as to establish the shevotim, it was worthwhile to use his physical power to remove the heavy stone.
Yeshaya calls the Torah "tushiyah" since it induces someone who studies it, someone who understands and feels its importance, to employ his powers exclusively for spiritual achievements. Consequently his strength available for other purposes will diminish. This quality shows the greatness of Torah study.
Resh Lokish was unique in another way, too. When he was about to be niftar, the gemora (Gittin 47a) tells us, a few vegetables remained in his house. This vexed him and he remarked that he was one "who leaves his wealth to others" (Tehillim 49:11).
This is surely not the way most other people feel. A person is more than glad to leave an inheritance to his beloved offspring who continue his lineage. Why was Resh Lokish different from anyone else? In fact this is the only such incident in the whole Talmud.
That was Resh Lokish's ideology. He built his entire weltanschauung on R' Yochonon's advice to focus his colossal strength on Torah study. He decided that his entire life should be based on focusing his whole body and soul on Torah. Undoubtedly every time he was forced to work for his livelihood he appraised whether he was truly exercising his energy solely for this aim. He was annoyed when, at the end of his life, he saw that some vegetables had remained that he had not used for Torah study. He felt he had not succeeded in devoting all of his power to Torah and he was "leaving his wealth to others."
The gemora (Megilla 21a) tells us that from the time of Moshe until Rabban Gamliel people would study Torah while standing. After Rabban Gamliel's demise the world became weaker and people started studying Torah while sitting. This is what is meant that "ever since Rabban Gamliel died the Torah's honor was annulled."
Several difficulties must be resolved: 1) If feebleness descended on the world in all areas, why was it especially felt in studying Torah? 2) Why does difficulty in standing detract from the Torah's honor? 3) Is difficulty standing considered an actual sickness? 4) The gemora (Sotah 49a) mentions certain matters that have been annulled because of the death of tzaddikim, such as hasmodoh when Ben Azzai died, and people who can truly say droshos when Ben Zoma died, and anshei ma'aseh when R' Chanina ben Dosa died. We understand from the gemora that this was a spiritual drop, not a physical one, but from what the gemora tells us about when Rabban Gamliel died, that people were not strong enough to stand while studying Torah, we apparently see that a physical weakness set in.
We can explain that what happened after Rabban Gamliel's death was also a spiritual decline. Until his death everyone stood while studying Torah since they sensed the Torah's importance and understood that to honor it a person should exert himself and stand. After Rabban Gamliel's death people did not esteem Torah to the same degree and were considered sick and weak only in this regard.
HaKodosh Boruch Hu only lets His Shechina dwell on a person who is strong (Nedorim 38a). The proof is from Moshe Rabbenu, who held the two luchos although they were very heavy. According to our usual understanding of the Torah weakening a person's strength, it is impossible to explain how Moshe was not weakened after studying Torah for forty days and nights on Mount Sinai. Furthermore why, in order to merit the indwelling of the Shechina, is someone required to have tremendous physical strength, which seems a contradiction to studying Torah?
Actually, as we have mentioned above, physical strength is not at all incongruent with studying Torah. Torah weakens the strength of someone who studies it only in relation to matters not connected to Torah. It is only for other concerns that he has become weak, since he does not want to use his strength for them.
"The Torah was given to Yisroel because they are azin . . . If the Torah had not been given to Yisroel no nation could withstand them" (Beitzah 25b). Rashi explains that the Torah weakens their power and humbles their heart.
Was the Torah given to Yisroel only so that they would not overthrow the non-Jews? Moreover, if azin means "strong," are those Jews who are not engaged in Torah study and have not been weakened indeed more powerful than non- Jews?
The above gemora adds that Resh Lokish said that three kinds of azin exist in the world: Yisroel among the nations, a dog among the animals, and a chicken among the birds. If azin means physical might, are not other animals and birds stronger than dogs and chickens?
This is proof that azin means "stubborn" (the Maharsha explains azin in the same way). Klal Yisroel have the special attribute that when they want a certain thing they exert themselves to the utmost to attain it. No nation can withstand this might, not even those stronger physically than they. With earnest desire one can overcome all. "Where there is a will; there is a way."
Chazal, when they tell us that the Torah was given to Yisroel because they are azin, mean that to succeed in Torah one must be unyielding, that it is required to exert all of one's power to engage in constant Torah study. Other nations do not have to fear Yisroel since Yisroel use their stubbornness only for Torah and not to wage wars. The Torah weakens them, as Rashi comments, since their powers are directed to Torah and not to other matters.
Chazal (Zevochim 116a) teach us about the posuk, "Hashem sat enthroned at the flood; and He sits enthroned as King forever" (Tehillim 29:10) that all of the nations gathered around Bilaam the rosho when they heard the sound of Matan Torah, which spread from one end of the world to the other. They asked him whether a flood was about to engulf the world. Bilaam answered: "Hashem gives strength to His people" (v. 11), strength meaning Matan Torah, as Rashi explains, that the Torah is Yisroel's strength. Immediately they all started saying: "Hashem blesses His people with peace."
How can it be that the Torah is called strength, how can it impart strength to Yisroel as Rashi explains? On the contrary, the Torah weakens our physical strength. In addition, why did the nations answer "Hashem blesses His people with peace"? It is normal that when one country acquires a powerful weapon its enemy immediately prepares for war, but when the nations heard that Yisroel received "strength" they were calmed and blessed Yisroel with peace.
Before Yisroel received the Torah the other nations were frightened of them, since they are the most az of all nations. With their stubbornness they could overcome all other nations. But after the Jewish Nation received the Torah, they invested all their strength and vigor into studying Torah. Now the nations no longer had to fear that Yisroel might use their strength to fight other nations.
When, each year, the time of receiving our Torah arrives, we of course resolve to strengthen ourselves in studying Torah and fulfilling Torah and mitzvos. Besides this chizuk, we should better realize the Torah's importance and utilize all of our latent powers only to labor over the Torah until we feel we have no more strength and can do nothing else.
HaRav Eliezer HaLevi Dunner is the rav of the Adas Yisroel Kehilla in the Ma'ayenei Hayeshua Hospital of Bnei Brak. The above is an edited translation of a drosho delivered in the Adas Yisroel Kehilla.