Torah is Perfect
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
“The sun is like a groom coming forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager to run his course. His rising-place is at one end of heaven, and his circuit reaches the other; nothing escapes his heat. The teaching of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimonies of the Lord are trustworthy, making the simple wise.” (Psalms 19:6-8).
King David (Psalm’s author) first discusses the sun’s benefit, followed by Torah’s benefit. Although both the sun and Torah benefit man independent of each other, this progression from sun to Torah contains yet another message.
Why does he [King David] join the idea of the Law with that of the sun? His meaning is, that as the heavens and the sun and the spheres are witnessing to and declaring the glory of God and His wisdom, so [too] the Law and the Commandments which He has commanded His people Israel witness to His wisdom and uprightness, as it says (Deut. 4:8), “What great nation is there that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this Law?” And further he says that as the heavens and the sun benefit the world, and through them the world continues to exist, so [too] is the Law, which is perfect and restores the soul, and upon which (depends) the preservation of the soul, as the preservation of the world (depends) upon the sun. For the soul in the body is as a stranger in a foreign land who has none to help or assist him, for the agents (the instincts) which minister to the body are for the most part such as follow after the appetites, and she (the soul) is as a solitary one and captive amongst them. So also says Solomon, who compares her to a poor wise man (Koh. 9:15). And notice the Law restores the soul in that it teaches man the right way and draws him away from worldly desires and from many stumbling-blocks. And notice it restores the soul from captivity and confinement to her (rightful) birth and the place of her glory. And David declares in respect of the Law and the commandments and the judgments, their truth and uprightness.
The Soul is a “Captive”
Radak refers to the soul as a “captive,” and rightfully so. The soul is an alien in a world (man’s psyche) which contains many strong passions that inhibit the soul’s expression. From youth, these passions and lusts deter man towards instinctual gratification. Abraham was unique in his independent thought. But the typical man’s soul requires time to develop, and external instruction in order to grow towards preferring knowledge and mastering our appetites, instead of satisfying our instincts. Torah or course is that training.
Although from birth, we already possess a soul—just like we possess instincts—the instincts naturally and without training operate in full form from birth and throughout life, tapping man’s energies to chase desires. Instincts don’t need to be trained to desire physical pleasure, just as we don’t need to be trained to breathe, eat or laugh. But intelligence is different. Man must first learn about existences: parents, siblings, trees, sky, animals and so on. It then must learn about causal relationships and natural laws: sharp things make us bleed, and gravity causes things to fall. The intellect stores all these lessons, and then starts realizing deeper truths, like human feelings: taking a toy from another child makes him cry. Throughout maturity, the child learns about fear, friends, ego, morality, and eventually, God.
To this point, man has been on an absorption, fact-finding mission. Self-reflection, self estimation, responsibility, insecurity, trust and more mature attitudes finally set in. Now, with an understanding of the main aspects of life, a person can appreciate both, physical existence, psychological existence, philosophy and God. With the backdrop of factual knowledge, philosophy, psychology and God’s Torah, a person only then may judge what is true and what is morally correct. But until this age of roughly 13, the soul was captive to the emotions: it has grown accustomed and comfortable with an instinctual existence. And here is the battle: to overcome what feels good, in place of what intelligence says is best, as is God’s plan.
Torah Restores the Soul
…it (Torah) restores the soul from captivity and confinement to her (rightful) birth and the place of her glory.
Radak means that Torah benefits man in two ways. First, as the instincts ruled man since youth, this damaged the soul. It is no longer in its original untarnished state, which it was at birth. Following the instincts has distanced the soul from wisdom, and caused it to not seek wisdom. This is the damage to the soul; it is not pursuing thought. Although the soul retains its capacity to explore wisdom, it has not done so, and it has not grown in its attachment to truth. The second benefit is that Torah enables the soul to reach it potential, “the place of her glory.”
The Patriarchs’ Perfection
The book (itself) is called by the name of the Law (Torah) from Genesis to Deuteronomy, as is written (Deut. 31:9): "And Moses wrote this Law"; "Take this book of the Law" (ibid. 26); (this is) because it narrates the history of Creation and also narrates the affairs of the Fathers; it likewise sets forth every single one of the things which teach about God: that He is the founder of the world, of His goodness and of the beings created by Him, and His providence in the case both of the good and the evil. He mentions the commandments also – that is, what God commanded (man) to do in the ways of the service of God and love of Him, as of a master who gives commandment to his servant.
Radak identifies the “affairs of the Fathers.” The patriarchs and matriarchs had no Torah. They demonstrated man’s ability to arrive at perfection using intellect alone. This is why I said above that man “typically” requires external instruction to perfect himself. But rare individuals rise above their instincts and realize God’s truths and plan for man. Torah discusses these great people at length to declare that man is capable, and ultimately responsible for choosing truth and morality, regardless of his upbringing. “Who gives commandment” teaches that without commands, man cannot learn from nature that eh is to be subservient to God. This explains why God also commanded Adam. Although a perfected intellect (Ibn Ezra), Adam would not know of his subservience to God without God commanding him in something. This cannot be gleaned fro studying nature alone.
Man Errs; God’s Knowledge is Absolute Truth
Ibn Ezra comments:
The sun testifies that Torah is perfect. And according to my thinking, until here it is mentioned how an understanding person can find testimony [proof] on God’s existence and His works. And King David said that Torah is a greater testament and more trustworthy [than creation] and that is God’s Torah, and its testaments, and its statutes and its commands and the fear of Him, and His laws.
Ibn Ezra shares a beautiful thought: “Torah is a greater testament” to discovering God than is nature, stated as “The sun testifies that Torah is perfect.” This metaphor that “nature confirms Torah as superior” means nature cannot offer man the greatest wisdom. This is because what man learns from nature is human derivation and deduction: man has no monopoly on absolute truth and makes many errors in thought. Star worshippers embody this error, for they deduced idolatrous notions by viewing nature. Maimonides states that Adam’s grandson Enosh and his generation assumed God to “be in the heavens,” and like viceroys who minister to the king are to be respected in respect to the king, stars which “minister before God” too must be revered (Laws of Star Worship 1:1).
But God’s Torah is His words, not man’s thoughts. Torah is an mazing gift, for God articulated absolute truths. True, man can and does misinterpret Torah, but he is still a huge step ahead of a person without God’s precise words. With God’s brilliantly formulated Torah, “Torah is a greater testament” to God and His will for man than is nature, which depends on flawed human deduction. Even religious adults today think “God is everywhere.” But with Torah study, they will eventually learn—as the rabbis taught—“God is the place of the world, and the world is not His place” (Rav Huna in Rav Ami’s name, Beraishis Rabba 68:9). This means that God is the necessary existence (“place”) for the world, but He does not occupy space. This is why we refer to God as “Hamakom”—“the place.” God is not everywhere. In fact, God is not anywhere. He existed prior to the creation of time and space. Therefore, His existence is unrelated to the universe in any manner. Enosh and his generation erred by assuming God occupies space, in the heavens. Upon that grave error, they added more errors, that stars are beings with will, and that they minister before God. Their underlying error is that they did not mature from their false view that all is “in the universe.” Man thereby baselessly forces God into the physical world, simply because man could not accept that something exists other than the physical. Manny religious Jews and religious books over the generations have not matured through Torah study, and suggest that “part of God is in man,” that God literally “fills the world,” and other heresies. But Torah and reality demand we accept that that which created the physical universe—by definition—cannot not occupy the universe. God has no form, so place, no size, as Moses taught us, “Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire” (Deut. 4:15). And even that voice was not God “talking.” It was a creation, just like the fire. God created sounds to communicate with man.
King David was one of the wisest men. His quote above says that “God’s Torah is perfect”: perfect for guiding our lives towards the most rewarding existence. It is foolish for a person to ignore Torah, as God created man and He knows best what will offer man happiness. God said this happiness comes from Torah, and the wisest of men and women agreed. We trust our temporary bodies only to experienced and knowledgeable doctors. We must trust our potentially eternal souls to God, who knows more than doctors.