Rabbi Shafir Roizman

The year was 1242. Nicolas Donin, an apostate Jew, put the Talmud on trial.

The advocates were Jewry’s greatest luminaries, Rabeinu Yechiel (the son of the Rosh), Moses of Coucy and other Tosafists. Rabeinu Yechiel made the greatest mistake a Jew could make; in an “ecclesial debate,” he won. The king of France, Louis IX, ordered all copies of the Talmud burnt. On June 17, 1242, 24 cartloads of painstakingly handwritten gemorahs were burnt in a courtyard at the location where the Louvre Museum stands today. The Louvre, home to some of the most exquisite works of art, carries with it an ugly image. Hours learning pages of gemorah, sweet divine pleasure, consumed by flames of ignorance and hatred.

The Maharam Mirotenburg penned a lamentation upon hearing of this event which has become a part of the kinnos we say on the 9th of Av. The burning at the Louvre marked the decline of Torah Jewry in France and Germany. In the coming years the Torah took its staff of exile to Eastern Europe, never to return to its former glory in the towns of Worms, Paris and Cologne. This is where the real story begins.

The shibolei haleket recounts a mystical dimension to our historical tragedy. The Baalei Hatosfos shaken by the reality that the basic materials for Torah learning have been destroyed, performed a dream request. (A kabalistic ritual where a person entreats G-d for an answer to an enigma, where a piece of vellum is placed under the supplicant’s head and the answer appears in the morning). The answer was “this is the decree of the Torah.” You see, the burning took place on Erev Shabbos Parshah Chukkas. The Magen Avrohom in Siman 580 marks a fast day instituted on every Erev Shabbos Parshah Chukkas specifically for individuals as atonement for the decree of the Torah. Even though these matters are of a lofty nature, let us try to internalize some of the concepts accessible to us.

The commandment of the Parah Adumah (the red heifer) contains an interesting paradox. On the one hand, it is a commandment that belies explanation. On the other, Moshe Hadarshan clearly explains how the Parah Adumah is a rectification for the (the sin of the golden calf). Perhaps the answer lies in the words, “This is the decree of the Torah.” The word “Torah” means to guide. Guidance must be bestowed with the greatest of clarity. The word “decree” means to fix in place — it requires no explanation. It’s a fact.

How do we reconcile this oxymoron? Reb Hirsh Ziditchoiver used to describe how he would learn. “I force my mind to delve to the end of its abilities and when I comprehend the difficulty, I start again. I repeat the cycle till I can no longer understand; that’s where knowledge begins.” The Mahri of Cologne said, “After I have learnt all sifrei kabbala, I daven like a small child.” The Torah is the source of all wisdom. Once a person has exhausted the furthest reaches of Torah he exists within knowledge itself. Existence is not something to think of, it is life itself.

On a courtyard in Paris a lesson was learnt. Torah is not a fanciful hobby or religious obligation. We must ascend to the very peak of our abilities in order to truly bond with our dear treasure. Rabbi Menachem Schach writes in his magnum opus, Avi Ezri, that he posed a question to the Brisker Rov. How could there be a mitzvah of faith, it is simple that a beautiful, complex world cannot appear without a creator? The Brisker Rov said he posed the same question to his father, Rav Haim. His father answered, “You are right, the self-apparent presence of a creator is not faith. Faith is where my mind cannot grasp the presence of Hashem.” We are living through an era where our mind cannot grasp the vagaries of our times. We are living the paradox of decree and Torah. JN

Rabbi Shafir Roizman is the spiritual leader of Ohr Hatorah Congregation in Phoenix.