Rabbi Moshe Har-Noy
Former Rosh Kollel in Detroit
The Gemara (BT Nedarim 81a) declares that the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because shelo barchu baTorah techilah (“they did not recite the blessing on the Torah first”):
“For Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, why is it written: ‘Who is the wise man who will understand this’ (Yermiyahu 9:11)? This matter was asked of the Chachamim and the Nevi’im, and they could not explain it. Until HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself explained it, as it is written, ‘And Hashem said: Because of their forsaking My Torah which I set before them; and they have not hearkened to My Voice, and they did not follow It.’ (Yermiyahu 9:12) Is not ‘they have not hearkened to My Voice’ the same as ‘they did not follow It’?! Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, shelo barchu baTorah techilah.”
Before we clarify this statement, we should note that it seems to be contradicted by a different Gemara: The Gemara in Yoma (9a) explicitly states that the first Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of avodah zarah (idolatry), gilui arayot (sexual immorality), and sh’fichut damim (bloodshed) and that the second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). How can we resolve this apparent contradiction?
The answer is that the Gemara in Nedarim explains how the terrible deeds of the Gemara in Yoma could have occurred. The Gemara is astounded that Am Yisrael – the sons of the holy Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – could have stooped to avodah zarah, gilui arayot and sh’fichut damim and wonders how they could have done such horrible things. In response, we are taught shelo barchu baTorah techilah.
In other words, shelo barchu baTorah techilah is the cause and the source of Am Yisrael’s decline, and therefore, its rectification will lead to the rebuilding of Yerushalayim and the Beit HaMikdash. Thus, we must establish the nature of the sin and then determine how we can rectify it.
The Ran cites Rabbeinu Yonah:
“And I found in a hidden scroll of Rabbeinu Yonah z”l that the Torah specified that because of shelo barchu baTorah techilah the Land was lost. Because if it is correct that the meaning of ‘because of their forsaking My Torah’ is as it sounds – that they forsake the Torah, and they did not occupy themselves with it – then when the Chachamim and the Nevi’im were asked, why could they not explain it? After all, it is an obvious matter, and it should have been simple to explain. Rather, they certainly always occupied themselves with Torah, and hence, the Chachamim and the Nevi’im could not understand why the Land was lost. Until HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself explained that He knows the heart’s deep secrets shelo barchu baTorah techilah. That is, the Torah was not all that important to them that it was deserving of reciting a blessing over it. They did not occupy themselves with it lishmah (literally, for its own sake – loosely, with pure intentions). And as a result, they would scorn its blessings, and thus, ‘they did not follow it’ – in other words, according to its intentions and lishmah. These are the words of the Rav hachassid z”l, and they are pleasing and worthy of the one who said them.”
Let us clarify this idea. The Torah is not mathematics; the Torah must permeate the 248 eivarim (organs) and the 365 gidim (sinews) and transform the person into a better being. The Torah is neither science nor an intellectual challenge; it is the person and the world’s way of life. During the dor hachurban (the generation of the destruction of the Mikdash), the Torah was perceived as a scientific discipline rather than as the word of Hashem, and as a result, they stopped reciting the birkot haTorah. Once they ceased to do so and once the Torah was no longer important to them, their decline was inevitable. If the Torah does not serve as a guidebook, everyone does as they wish and begins to commit the most heinous sins. Thus, the rectification is to ensure that the Torah regains its true consequence. We must occupy ourselves with the Torah and once again recognize that it is the word of Hashem, which was given to us to guide us upwards and to bring our nation closer to the Creator of the Universe.
Rav Yitzchak David Grossman of Migdal HaEmek was asked an interesting question. According to the Gemara in Sotah, while learning Torah, one is saved from physical afflictions and from the yetzer hara (the evil inclination). (See Rashi’s explanation of the Gemara.) Yet, the dor hachurban learned Torah and was saved from neither of these things: They suffered a devastating physical churban and also transgressed wickedly. Rav Grossman responded by citing Chazal’s explanation of why David HaMelech, at the end of his life, was unable to get warm despite the clothing which covered him:
“Rabboteinu said, ‘one who disgraces clothing will ultimately be deprived of their pleasures. Because David tore the skirt of Shaul’s robe, consequently, they did not warm him.’” (Rashi, Melachim I 1:1)
One who despises and derides a certain thing cannot afterwards request that it protect him, because he himself was the one who deemed it to be worthless. Hence, since Am Yisrael lo barchu baTorah techilah and degraded the Torah and treated it irreverently, the Torah did not subsequently protect them against suffering or sin.
In Ben Yehoyada, R’ Yosef Chayim has a different explanation for “shelo barchu baTorah techilah”:
“The first brachah for divrei Torah represents the sod (hidden or mystical) portion. Therefore, it says, ‘and sanctify us,’ because everything which is sanctified is with chochmah (wisdom), and the sod aspect is with chochmah. And the brachah of ‘v’ha’arev’ represents proficiency over the revealed [portion]. Therefore, we say, ‘in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people Beit Yisrael,’ because proficiency is with the mouth. And the brachah of ‘Who chose us’ represents iyun (in-depth learning) and the s’varah (the reasoning) of the revealed portion, which is the portion about which the nations praise Yisrael… And behold, there are those who did not believe in the sod aspect, and therefore lo barchu baTorah techila, which is the first brachah which represents the sod portion in the Torah.”
The most important part of the Torah is the internal aspect, which is hidden beneath the words. According to the Ben Yehoyada, Am Yisrael scorned the Torah’s hidden and internal aspect and therefore ceased reciting the first brachah of the birkot haTorah, which represents this hidden aspect. But when Am Yisrael detaches itself from hamayim hachayim (the living waters) of the Torah, the churban process begins.
A third and final explanation comes from HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”l:
“‘Who chose us from among all the nations’ – This is a Heavenly (elyonah – literally, supreme) selection based on the recognition of this nation’s unique special essence, which distinguishes it from the other nations… Am Yisrael is the nation which was chosen to be the closest to the Creator of the Universe. This matter should fill each Jew with happiness, and he should bless and thank the Creator of the Universe for the privilege which is his lot. There are some things which are common to Am Yisrael and the other nations, but the daily connection to the Creator of the Universe… which is conveyed by the Torah is only ours… ” (Olat RAY”H, Birkot HaTorah)
Rav Kook explains that shelo barchu baTorah techilah means that Am Yisrael no longer took pride in their closeness with HaKadosh Baruch Hu and their unique status as the Creator’s beloved nation. They wanted to be just like all the other nations and therefore ceased praising HaKadosh Baruch Hu for choosing them from all the nations and giving them His Torah. Yet, the distance from here to avodah zarah, gilui arayot and sh’fichut damim is very small.
This idea meshes with the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling that one must “be very careful” when reciting birkat haTorah. According to the Mishnah Brurah, the Shulchan Aruch uses the word “very” to teach us that we must recite the brachah “with great happiness” and that we must express gratitude that Hashem “chose us and made us the object of His desire”.
In order to serve HaKadosh Baruch Hu as He wishes us to, we must internalize the message that it is a great privilege to be an oved Hashem (a worshipper of Hashem). This internalization is achieved by reciting the brachah, “Who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah,” daily and joyfully. In this way, we will be able to feel pride in being Torah-learning Jews. This is a difficult but necessary assignment. In order to bring about a tikun (a rectification) and a rebuilding, we must understand how privileged we are to belong to Am Hashem. If the churban was caused al shelo barchu baTorah techilah, the tikun process begins with:
“And we will rejoice with the words of Your Torah and with Your commandments forever.”