By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
One of the complex issues in relationships between full-time learners and good Jews who didn’t merit to learn much Torah is the awkward moment when the latter doesn’t understand why his friend in kollel doesn’t attend a seudat mitzvah and the like. “It’s also a big mitzvah!” he’ll tell his friend the kollel fellow, when the latter explains that he doesn’t want to stop studying Torah (bitul Torah). How can he explain to his friend, whose claim is justified, that, nevertheless, Torah study is something else altogether, a whole different level of sanctity?
One of the more puzzling injunctions enacted by Chazal is that on the Holy Scriptures. The two-part injunction is that the Holy Scriptures (the books of Tanach, when written on parchment) transmit impurity and nullify terumah if the two touch each other. The reasoning for this paradoxical injunction, which turns a sacred book into a source of impurity, is that there were times when people thought that since both terumah and these scriptures are sacred, the two should be stored together. The problem was that animals were attracted to the terumah (which is food, after all), and while munching away at the terumah produce, would also nibble at the scriptures, which destroyed and desecrated them. So to prevent people from storing terumah next to the Holy Scriptures, Chazal instituted that these writings would transmit impurity.
The second stage was that these writings would transmit impurity to one who touches them with his hands (tumat yadayim), which would also disqualify the terumah when touched (see Rambam’s gloss on the Mishnah, 3:3). It is interesting to note that this impurity became the litmus test to determine if a book was included in the holy canon of Tanach. In this way, if it transmits impurity to hands, it essentially is sacred (Mishnah Yadayim 3:6).
It seems that while this distinction drawn between the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures and other mitzvot (terumah, in our case) is a product of a situation that Chazal wanted to prevent, in their injunction Chazal wanted to emphasize another issue as well. There are different types of sanctity, and we shouldn’t think they are all the same. Even if someone achieves the trait of kedushah, sanctity, as defined by the Path of the Just, he will still make Havdalah at the conclusion of Shabbat “between the sacred and the mundane.” This is despite the fact that, “Behold, for the man sanctified with the holiness of his Creator, even his physical deeds become actual matters of holiness” (Path of the Just, chapter 26). Even so, we need to distinguish between “sanctity of the sacred” and “sanctity of the mundane.”
Sanctity of Sacred Vs. Sanctity of Mundane
Here is the place for an important question. We have discussed previously that G-d desires an earthly abode, and the purpose of creating the world is to reveal His kingship and unity in this physical world. If so, why isn’t sanctity of this kind more elevated or at least on par with “regular” sanctity — that is, sanctity that is sacred from its inception?
The answer to this is hinted at in the passage of “When the Ark was to set out—ויהי בנסוע הארון” (Bamidbar 10:35–36). Chazal state that these two verses constitute a book unto itself, which is why the two inverted nuns set off the verses. This portion is bookmarked by negative events: “And they journeyed from the mountain of the L-rd” (“Like a child fleeing from school,” Tanchuma) and the sin at Kivrot HaTa’avah. This portion, however, is in no way influenced by its surroundings. It remains pristine in its sanctity and uplifts anyone who reads it — exuding a sense of G-d’s greatness, which also reflects on the greatness of the Jewish people (“And those who hate You” — These are those who hate [the people of] Israel, for whoever hates Israel hates the One Who spoke and brought the world into being” [Rashi, Bamidbar 10:36]).
This world might contain evil, but it is also full of extraordinary goodness. However, the goodness in this world is often relative; it fluctuates and can be influenced by its surroundings. After all, we live in a physical world full of desires and physical drives. Sometimes, people feel that intense sanctity is too overwhelming for them and they flee from it like children running away from school. Others succumb to their base drives, like those described in the portion of the mit’onenim at Kivrot HaTa’avah. Those who want to ensure that they are bound up with eternal goodness must cleave to the Ark, which contains the Torah given to us at Mt. Sinai. This bond to Torah keeps us bound to the eternal truth and goodness (of course, providing that the connection to Torah is grounded in refined character traits and is for the sake of Heaven). Through this bond, one can approach the world and rectify it.
However, the false notion that there is no need for Torah, and the world itself is sacred — like the terumah, which is essentially fruit or produce that is sanctified — is dangerous. Instead of uplifting the physical world, it degrades it and desecrates the Torah. It is precisely this knowledge — that the sacred (kodesh) and mundane (chol) do exist, and that we must strive to sanctify the latter but not transform it into an independently sacred entity — that can truly sanctify the world. To the point where “even the bells on the horses shall be inscribed ‘Holy to the L-rd’” (Zecharya 14:20).
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.