“He found them in a desert; among the chaos of shouting beasts. He surrounded them and made them understanding. He protected them like the apple of His eye” (Devarim 32:10).
The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, elaborates:
He made them understanding of the way of the world, more so than all of the wise men of the world. And so Unkelos translated, “He taught them phrases of Torah.” And no wisdom in the world is hidden from them.
We have discussed recently our own commitments to broader study, referred to here in the Netziv’s comments. We make a commitment to studying and understanding the world in which G-d placed us, in line with the Rambam’s comments that to truly appreciate G-d, His broad wisdom, and Torah, we need to be familiar with so many arts and sciences.
The great Dayan Rabbi Baruch of Shklov, a student of the Vilna Gaon’s, translated several works of general knowledge into Hebrew. In his introduction to his translation of Euclid, he reported the view of his master and teacher:
“I heard from his holy mouth that in accordance with what a person lacks in general knowledge, he will be lacking a hundredfold in Torah knowledge, for Torah and general wisdom are closely joined together… And he commanded me to translate into our holy language what is possible from general knowledge, in order to remove the stolen property from their mouths, and so that wisdom will increase among our people Israel,… and the tongue of the nations will be removed who bellow at us, Where is your wisdom, and the name of heaven is desecrated… Therefore my heart has filled with the desire to sanctify G-d’s name and do the will of the righteous one, our master, the pious one, to translate whatever possible into our holy language….”
The Vilna Gaon apparently repeated this exact notion to another student, Rabbi Baruch Shick: Anyone who is lacking in general knowledge “will be lacking a hundredfold in Torah knowledge.”
We can understand the Vilna Gaon’s approach by reviewing different areas of halacha. Without geometry, there can be no laws of the sanctification of the new moon. Without expertise in music, no playing of instruments in the Holy Temple. Without architecture, the Temple cannot be built, without visual arts, it cannot be decorated and our mitzvot will not be beautiful. Without psychology, no understanding of whether or not a certain decree will be realistic, doable, and helpful. Not to mention that merely to engage in charity and acts of kindness requires an understanding of how the world works, how to make a living, what people’s needs are. Without biology, we cannot make determinations in the laws of slaughtering and life and death, without earth sciences, we cannot perform the many mitzvot which are based in agriculture.
All of this would be true even if it were not so that a general education is required for gaining an appreciation of G-d’s wisdom, philosophy, ethics, and laws.
All of this is important, well and good. It would not do for G-d to give us Torah and then not give us the means to realize it or to make us an embarrassment among the nations, ignorant and backward in relation to them. That would not do at all. He gives us all kinds of wisdom, as the Netziv says.
For the Netziv, it may have been important to emphasize this idea because many of our friends, families, and loved ones do not understand and appreciate what we refer to as general studies, those things which are important but are, in contrast to Torah, not inherently sacred.
However, those of us who do appreciate these types of wisdom, at times need a reminder on the other end. For we have knowledge of the various arts in spades. Many of us, on a national level, are among the best educated and most well off financially in large measure due to this. But this puts us in the unique position of, G-d forbid, forgetting the area of study which is the crown jewel of all studies, that which is sacred and most deeply needful and important. This is Torah itself.
In the third chapter of his Lights of Teshuva, Rav Kook writes of repentance aimed at a particular goal – say, to work on our patience or to remember to make blessings before we eat – and at another, more general type of repentance.
There is another type of feeling of repentance, a general and broad one. There is no particular sin or sins of the past which come to mind, but a general and internal feeling that one is sad, filled with iniquity, that G-d’s light does not shine on him, that he is not generous, his heart is sealed, his attributes and character traits do not follow the path of the upright and desirable, that which should fill a good life and a pure soul, his mind is unpolished, his feelings mixed up in eating and drinking that awaken a feeling of revulsion in him, he is ashamed of himself, he knows G-d is not within him. And this is the greatest pain…
We need Torah. Not merely because it is the way of our ancestors, interesting to study, something foisted upon us by teachers, parents, and grandparents, and not even because it is the very name of G-d, connecting us to Him. We need Torah study because it makes us whole. It fills us up, enlivens us, balances us, softens our corners, strengthens our character, sense of self, and direction. Nothing is more wholesome and healthy and nothing makes us so healthy and wholesome as study which pursues this. Torah provides the very rich texture and fullness of a good life, a life well lived. It is a precious blessing.