1. As a result of the recent efforts to motivate and stimulate people to study Mishneh Torah, the magnum opus of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam), many individuals have increased their study of this important work. Hopefully, this diligence will continue, so that completion of the study cycle of the entire work will coincide with the Rambam’s upcoming birthday on Erev Pesach.
Today being the Rambam’s Yahrzeit (anniversary of his passing, also called “Hilulo”), we should take the opportunity on this propitious day to try to encourage additional people to join in the study of Mishneh Torah and to publicize this practice even more. Mishneh Torah, also known as the Sefer Yad Hachazakah (Code of Maimonides), describes every detail of Halachah (Jewish law) as it is to be practically applied, and thereby expresses the true greatness of Torah study, of which is said: “Study is greater for it leads to action.”
The theme of a Yahrzeit is explained in Tanya, Iggeres Hakodesh chapter 27:
All his doings, his Torah, and the Divine service which he served all the days of his life ... becomes revealed and radiates in a manifest way from above downwards ... and effects salvation in the midst of the earth.
This letter in Iggeres Hakodesh may also have a special connection with the Hilulo of the Rambam and with the study of Mishneh Torah.
There is an opinion that the Rambam passed away on the 24th of Teves, which would be the same day as the passing of the Alter Rebbe. In fact this date is not generally accepted, but even the traditionally accepted date of the 20th of Teves is also in close proximity to the 24th, and often, as this year, falls in the same week and on the first day of that week. As such there is an aspect of inclusiveness that connects the 24th to the 20th .
When we analyze the essential quality of an “Hilulo day” to effect “salvation in the midst of the mundane world,” we find a connection to Mishneh Torah.
What is the substance of Mishneh Torah? The down to earth application of every detail of Halachah, which will reveal the supernal will in the mundane — lowest — physical world. This truly brings the effect of salvation in the world!
Based on this, it is important that there should be an increase in the efforts expended to encourage people to increase their study of the Rambam.
It is appropriate that the motivating force should come from a farbrengen where many people are gathered and where words of Torah are spoken. This farbrengen also has the quality that it is conducted immediately after Maariv (Evening Prayer). At the close of this farbrengen, dollar bills will be distributed for tzedakah (charity), which will complete the three pillars on which the world stands: Torah, prayer and tzedakah. A farbrengen which is comprised of the three foundations of the world is certainly the best time to encourage and motivate people to increase their study of the Rambam. For then their awakening will also stand and endure in an orderly fashion.
Order, after all is one of the touchstones of the Rambam who organized his work, Mishneh Torah, so systematically, that we may derive halachos simply from their sequence. This factor is generally not found in the Talmud where, “In two tractates there is no order in the Mishnah,” and certainly not in the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Caro or the Alter Rebbe. Only the Rambam incorporated the rule, that he relies on what he wrote earlier and expects us to deduce certain halachic details from the specific sequence — even from one section to a later section of Mishneh Torah. Likewise, the Rambam on several occasions, in his Guide of the Perplexed, elaborates on the importance of system and order.
We might also add — perhaps a bit on the lighter side — that the last minute arrangement of this farbrengen also emphasizes the importance and quality of order. Knowing the importance the Rambam placed on order, it had seemed a bit incongruous that a farbrengen where we stress his teachings should not have been organized in an orderly fashion.
The truth however is, that the quality of order is most manifest when imposed on a situation of haste and impromptu. After all, if there had been a lot of time for preparation, even the most disorganized person would have been ready and prepared. Where do we see real order, when there was no time to prepare, and despite this, the farbrengen is being conducted in an orderly manner
The essential thing of course is the goal and purpose of our gathering, and the good resolutions pertaining to action. Just as G-d created everything in the world with a purpose, so too, a Jew in his microcosm must emulate the Divine in all his ways, and do all his actions for the proper reasons and goals.
2. We will start with a section from today’s selection of Rambam and see how it should be applied in practice as well as in moral principle, which is of equal importance.
At the beginning of chapter 7 of Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life the Rambam writes:
If a disciple is exiled to a city of refuge, his teacher must be exiled with him, for Scripture says, “And he shall live,” that is: Make it possible for him to live on. Now life for scholars and for those who seek wisdom is like death when they are deprived of the study of Torah.
The source of the Rambam’s halachic ruling is of course the Gemara in tractate Makkos 10a:
Rabbi Yitzchok asked: “What is the Scriptural authority [for all these provisions]? The verse, ‘And that fleeing unto one of the cities he might live,’ which means — provide him with whatever he needs so that he may live. A Tanna taught: A disciple who goes into banishment is joined in exile by his master, in accordance with the text “that he might live,” which means provide him with whatever he needs to live.
The source for the Rambam’s additional observation that “ life for scholars ... is like death when ... deprived of ... Torah,” may be found in the book of Koheles 7:12: “Wisdom gives life to those who have it.” In other words, for one who has wisdom it is not just some additional source of pleasure, but rather it is the essence of his life.
Several points in the Rambam cited above need clarification. The Talmud had used the simple term, “A disciple who goes into banishment is joined in exile by his master,” not describing or evaluating that student. From the subsequent text in the Gemara, it would appear that the student just mentioned could even be an unworthy individual: “Rabbi Zeira remarked that this is the basis of the dictum: ‘Let no one teach Mishnah to a disciple who is unworthy.”‘ Rashi explains that the negative situations which cause the edict of banishment are found only among wrongdoers and if so, the whole case would seemingly apply in the case of a student who is a “rasha” (wicked person).
This is in contradiction to the spirit of the Rambam’s terminology which referred to-the students sent into exile as scholars and seekers of wisdom, which forced their teachers to join them in exile! From the gist and sense of Rambam’s words it appears that only these exceptional students consider life without Torah similar to death. A regular student might not be on the level that would need Torah as part of his basic life support system, and certainly not an unworthy or wicked disciple!
And yet the Talmud does not make any distinctions but says simply that any disciple who goes into exile must be followed by his master.
The Ragotchover Gaon discusses this Rambam and notes that his reference to “scholars and seekers of wisdom,” for whom a Torah-less existence is tantamount to death, is really a spiritual reason. He goes on to say, that the simple meaning of the Talmud is that one must not teach unworthy students. This Rabbi did, so he suffers, by going into exile — a form of punishment!
These words are even more paradoxical!
- The context of the Talmud inferred that because the teacher would be exiled, it provided a pretext and was the basis for not teaching unworthy students — not the other way around as the Ragotchover deduced.
- The scenario in which a master would be exiled really does not depend on the caliber of the disciple. In any case the master would join the student in exile. How can the Ragotchover say that because he didn’t follow the teachings of the sages and he taught unworthy students let him suffer!?
To elucidate this dilemma it must first be established why the clearly stated halachic dictum of the Talmud is correct as stated: “A disciple who goes into banishment is joined in exile by his master.” It makes no difference what is the n hro nf tho etndontl
But is it not strange and unfair to exile a master because of an unworthy student, who has reached the lowly level of murdering someone, albeit unwittingly. Especially as we know that unintentional sins (“shogeg”) also need atonement and forgiveness. As we find explained in Iggeres Hakodesh “inadvertent sins which come about because of the strengthening of the animal soul which is of “Nogah?”
If you will persist and respond, that nevertheless it does say, “He shall live,” which means “provide him with whatever he needs to live,” we could ask that when we are dealing with an unworthy student, Torah may not be part of his life support system! Why should his teacher be exiled with him?
In order to answer this question the Rambam carefully chooses his words when he writes: “Now, life for scholars and for those who seek wisdom is like death ... without Torah study.” What is the Rambam indicating to us? We must realize that life in the city of refuge might go on for many years. During that indeterminable period of time we must supply him with everything that will, “make it possible for him to live on.” Even if at this moment he might show himself to be unworthy, nevertheless, since he once studied under a learned master, we must assume that eventually the light of Torah will turn him back to do good, and he has the ability and potential to once again be on the caliber of a worthy student — a real scholar — whnqp lifo will ho worthless without Torah.
The Rambam hints at this when he adds the words “and for those who seek wisdom.” Even though at this point in time they are not really scholars, nevertheless if they will strive to seek wisdom certainly they will succeed, for, “if someone says I have worked hard but I have not been successful, do not believe him.”
But why is the teacher exiled, even before the student attained the level of a worthy disciple? Because, when we see that the student has fallen to the level that he has unintentionally caused the death of another person, this tells us that he is not worthy, and the teacher instructed an unfit student, against the directive of the sages. Now, since he was the one who started to teach this pupil, the responsibility now rests on him to make him return to his proper condition, to make him a proper student — who will become a true scholar.
There is an important moral lesson to be learned by us from this Rambam in our personal Divine service.
For various reasons and causes a Jew might find himself (G-d forbid) in the category of an “unworthy disciple” and when making an honest introspection this might bring him to despondency. Therefore the Rambam tells us that even when one is in such a situation, he still has the real potential to rise to the greatest heights, and to become a true scholar, by first occupying himself in seeking wisdom. For Torah teaches “work hard and you will be successful”; he will reach the level where Torah will be his way of life and the absence of Torah study will be considered like death.
We can see the full manifestation of this concept, that this high level is really in the potentiality of every Jew, in the Alter Rebbe’s eloquent description in chapter 18 of Tanya:
Thus it comes to pass that the Blessed En Sof is garbed, as it were, in the wisdom of the human soul, of whatever soul of Jew he may be. [In turn] the soul’s faculty of wisdom, together with the light of the En Sof that is garbed, as it were, in the soul, permeate in all aspects of the entire soul, thereby animating it “from head to foot,” so to speak, as it is written: “Wisdom gives life to those who have it.”
On the other hand, that lofty scholar must not be complacent with his position, but must strive to rise even higher, as one who is always seeking. For everything he has accomplished is truly as nothing compared to the true infinite essence of Torah. Again, Tanya chapter 18:
But as regards a thing which is in the realm of infinity, there is no number that can be considered relative to it, for a billion or trillion do not attain the relevancy [to infinity] of the figure one in comparison with a billion or trillion but is veritably accounted as nothing.
This idea may be illustrated by the story of the Tzemach Tzedek who declined the Alter Rebbe’s offer of Torah as a gift, because he wanted to strive and struggle for Torah. Later he was sorry and regretted his decision because he realized that as much as you get as a gift there is that much more to strive and struggle and work for.
The idea of exile to a city of refuge may also be compared to the phenomenon of the exile of the Jewish people in the diaspora. In our prayers we say, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our 1 ds including also those sins allegorically associated with bloodshed, which although done inadvertently, must be expiated by exile in the city of refuge. This saves the individual from the “blood avenger,” the Satan, or evil inclination, and also brings atonement. If so, being in the diaspora is a form of (shogeg) exile.
The Prophet Yeshayahu tells us: “And all your children shall be learners of the [Torah of the] L-rd.” Thus every Jew — no matter the level or caliber — is a disciple of G-d.
When the Jews are in galus (exile) the teacher also joins them in exile. This is expressed in the well-known dictum of the Talmud: “To every place to which they were exiled, the Shechinah went with them. They were exiled to Egypt and the Shechinah was with them ...,” and to this the Sifri adds: “They were exiled to Edom [the present diaspora] and the Shechinah was with them.”
The state of exile is also felt by the Master, and when the Holy One, Blessed be He, exiles the Shechinah with the Jewish people, the Shechinah feels the galus, as the Prophet Yeshayahu said “In all their affliction He is afflicted.” For the Shechinah dwells with and within the suffering of the Jewish people (and yet G-d gives us protection).
Being that we are banished in the exile, and our Master and Teacher, the Holy One, Blessed be He, has joined us in exile and shares our suffering, it follows that the purpose of the Master in the exile is to give life to the student. Consequently, the Holy One, Blessed be He, must bestow upon us all that we require to make it possible for us to live. This life support must be on a level of the “life of scholars and seekers” so that we will actually be on such a lofty plane, and will be close to G-dliness, and compared to the One Above, to the point that G-d will desire our action. Then the essential act will unfold and G-d will leave the galus and take us with Him as the Talmud in Megillah concludes:
And when they will be redeemed in the future, the Shechinah will be with them, as it says: “The L-rd your G-d will return [with] your exiles.” It does not say here “veheshiv” [and He shall bring back] but ‘ve-shav’ [and He shall return]. This teaches us that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will return with them from the places of “exile.”
This should evoke a tremendous awakening in the study of Torah and especially the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. At the end of the galus (diaspora), we must study the details of Torah — Halachah — which strengthens the unity of the Jewish people with G-d. G-d and Torah are one. The remnants of the exile are destroyed and speedily and truly in our days we will merit the true and complete redemption through our righteous Mashiach.
3. This year the 20th of Teves falls on Sunday of the week of Vayeira. Thus, by Divine Providence there is a connection between the beginning of Vayeira and the Hilulo (anniversary of passing) of the Rambam.
At the beginning of Vaeira the Torah tells us of the revelation to Moshe of the name of G-d as “Eternal,” (the Tetragrammaton). In a sense this was a new revelation of the knowledge of G-d, not revealed earlier. This fits in very nicely with the opening words of the Rambam: “The basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to know ...” (Laws Concerning the Basic Principles of the Torah 1:1). At the close of Mishneh Torah, Rambam quotes the Prophet Yeshayahu: “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea” (Laws of Kings and Wars 12:5). The connection is clearly in the realm of knowledge.
The first statement goes on to say “... to know that there is a First Being.” This immediately strikes us as strange, because the use of the term First Being indicates that there is a second and third, but there is nothing else in sequence with G-d. As clearly stated a few words later, “all existing things ... exist only through His true existence.” Yet there is no similarity between the existence of the created being and the Creator. Even the loftiest creations cannot fathom the real existence of G-d. And so how can he say First Being?!
We can solve our dilemma here by drawing from the Rambam’s more lengthy explanation of the term “Being” in the Guide of the Perplexed.
It should be noted that those who think the Rambam showed one personality in his Guide and a different personality in Mishneh Torah are mistaken. The Rambam did not suffer from a split personality, rather in the Mishneh Torah which is a book of Halachah he must make terse rulings, while in his Guide he can elaborate and discuss ideas at length .
In his Guide of the Perplexed, chapter 63, the Rambam dwells on the meaning of the verse: “They will immediately ask me what His Name is; what shall I say to them?” (Shmos 3:13) [To prove that you are really the G-d of their Fathers.] On this the Rambam muses,
If the name was known to them, they would perceive in it no proof in the favor of the mission of Moshe, his knowledge and their knowledge of the Divine Name being the same. If on the other hand, they had never heard it mentioned, what evidence would they have that this was really the name of G-d?
The Rambam however, approaches the explanation, by clarifying the true role of Moshe and what he was to transmit to the Jewish people.
Moshe was the first person who received a mission from G-d that “commanded him to address the people and to bring them the message” [to be transmitted to the people]. The Patriarchs were not given prophecy “which appealed to others or which directed them” [to tell others].
Moshe replied that he might first be asked to prove the existence of G-d in the Universe .... On this G-d instructed Moshe to say, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” — a name derived from the verb “to be” in the sense of “existing.” Not representing a power or attribute as the other names of G-d, rather the fact of existence .... That He exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term ... whose existence is absolute. [That has never been and never will be without existence.] G-d thus showed Moshe the proofs by which His existence would be firmly established among the wise men of his people.
From here we understand that the term, “To know that there is a ‘First Being”‘ which is the mitzvah of knowing G-d, is to know, that He is removed from all descriptives and may only be described as ‘existence.’ This existence is also not normal “existence” but really means only the “negation of non-existence.” As the Rambam continues, that all creatures exist only from his “true existence,” and that His “true existence” is not like the being of all creations but rather it is thp oxiqtoneo of tho Creator
Yet since His existence has to be known to us, and this can be only by projection from the normal existence, this knowledge must come to us in two stages.
- “To know there is a First Cause [Being],” when we see all creations we realize they did not make themselves but the Creator made them, the “First Cause.”
- All beings only come from His true, essential existence, they are not similar to, or like, the “true existence,” and that existence is not like normal existence, yet they come from that source.
Parenthetically, this will also help us to explain the version in the Rambam, which does not include the name “Eheyeh” in the list of the unerasable names. We can now explain that version as meaning that the name “Eheye” is even higher than those names representing the essential existence — “which is not like normal existence.”
The idea of First Being and the beginning of Vaeira may be connected to the halachah in the Rambam that when a student is exiled his master must join him in exile.
Vayeira took place when the Jews were still in the Egyptian bondage and were informed: “Therefore say to the Israelites [in My Name], ‘I am the ‘Eternal,’ I will take you away form your forced labor in Egypt.” (Shmos 6:6)
But first the Torah says: “I revealed Myself to Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov,” on which Rashi comments, “the Patriarchs.” At first glance the commentary is strange, but actually Rashi means to say that this was their common factor, they were the “fathers” of all Jews, and educated their children, of all the later generations in all matters of Torah and mitzvos. This is what the Torah means when it says: “So that he will command his children and his household after him and they will keep G-d’s way, doing charity and justice.”
What is the fundamental foundation of that training, which brings a connection to G-d? The knowledge of G-d: “To know that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being ... His true existence.” That’s how a Jew is made!
So G-d begins speaking to Moshe by saying: “I appeared to the ... Patriarchs,” since in your bondage you still have the education and training of the “fathers” — therefore you will merit the revelation of, “I am the Eternal.” You will have the revelation of the giving of the Torah after being redeemed from bondage.
Since “teacher and disciple” can also be “father and son” this idea has a connection with the rule that the Master goes down into the galus, there to educate and teach and them to be redeemed.
Now also in the diaspora, the essential thing is to bring the teachings of the Father — Master, to the children — students, to make them “scholars and seekers of wisdom.” Thus the goal is that more and more Jews should be encouraged to study the revealed aspect of Torah, especially the Books of the Rambam as well as the esoteric teachings of Torah — Chassidus.
Through this, the redemption will be brought closer, and the promise will be fulfilled: “Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust.” And all will learn Torah from Mashiach in a manner of: “For they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them....”
By adding more good action the Rambam’s words will be fulfilled: “If he fulfills one commandment, he turns the scale of merit in his favor and in that of the whole world and brings salvation and deliverance.”
May G-d grant that this shall come about in reality — the true and complete redemption, through our righteous Mashiach quickly and truly in our days.
[The Rebbe, Shlita, here spoke about “What is a Jew.” This sichah was published as a separate essay.]