Let My People Know

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: “Was it all worth it?”

The Talmud relates that “four entered the orchard (pardes).

They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher [Elisha b. Avuya], and Rabbi Akiva… Ben Azzai gazed and died… Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken… Aher gazed and became a heretic… Rabbi Akiva left in peace” (Hagiga 14b).

Maimonides explains that this “orchard” refers to the study of other wisdoms and other disciplines (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 4:13; also see Rema, Yoreh De’ah 246:4), but the Vilna Gaon sharply criticizes this explanation.

He argues that besides the fact that the explanation is fundamentally incorrect and constitutes an affront to the God of truth, it reduces the Torah to a mere antechamber leading to a great hall, a preparatory stage leading to the study of the other branches of knowledge.

This interpretation sets as the highest level, as the goal, something that is not worth pursuing.

Rav Hai Gaon says that “it is not our way to cover up [the true meaning of] a matter and interpret it in a way that is not in accordance with the intention of the one who said it, as others do” ( Teshuvot HaGeonim 99).

When we set out to interpret words of Torah, we try to explain them strictly in keeping with the true intention of the one who spoke them.

This principle applies not only to methods of interpretation but also as a way of life.

Sometimes, for various reasons, people build questionable, contrived explanations for the ideas in the Torah, reducing it to an antechamber that leads to a wretched hall.

When, after several generations, a person finally understands that the glorious castle of his dreams is no more than a hovel, he asks himself: Was it all worth it?

Maimonides indicates that the lofty Pardes refers to Aristotle’s metaphysics.

However, several problems arise.

First, this idea does not appear in the Torah at all.

Second, it fails to explain the mysteries of the Torah. Finally, and most importantly, is it worth living and dying for this purpose?

Is it for Aristotle’s metaphysics that we sacrifice our entire lives?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz