Although the Torah fixes the number of Malkot (lashes) that a court can administer at forty (25:3), Chazal (Makkot 22) derive from the word “BeMispar,” “by a number” (25:2), that only the number closest to forty – thirty-nine – can actually be administered. The Gemara there adds in the name of Rava, “How silly are most people, who stand for a Sefer Torah but not before scholars, yet even though the Torah writes ‘forty,’ the Rabbis went and subtracted one, [which demonstrates their greater stature].” Rav Yehoshua of Kutna notes that this seems to contradict another Gemara (Kiddushin 33), which comments, “Before those who learn [Torah] we stand; how much more so we should stand for [the Torah] itself.” Which is truly greater and more worthy of such respect – the Torah, or its scholars?
Rav Yehoshua answers based on a grammatical distinction, which he borrows from a Gemara in Berachot (10a), between the two ways to formulate a word in Hebrew for one who does a particular action. The more common way is to use the same form as the verb – “Chotei” can mean either “he sins” or “a sinner,” “Lomeid” either “he learns” or “one who learns.” The other way is to switch the vowels under the past-tense verb, putting the Patach under the first letter and the Kamatz under the second. This form is generally used to indicate an occupation – a “Gamol” (to use an Ashkenazic transliteration) is a camel-driver, a “Sapor” is a barber, and so on. The Gemara uses this distinction to differentiate between a “Chotei” and a “Chato,” of which David HaMelech prays for the destruction only of the latter (Tehillim 104:35). Rav Yehoshua explains that this is because a “Chotei” is someone who simply does a sin, be it by accident, by happenstance, or perhaps because of an overpowering urge. But a “Chato” is one whose very nature is one of sin, whose occupation, as it were, is sinning.
This may also be the distinction between the scholars who deserve greater respect than the Torah itself and those who apparently do not. While those who merely learn Torah are certainly praiseworthy, and we do indeed stand for them, their stature is dwarfed by that of the Torah itself. Those who make Torah their occupation, however, and who are therefore of the stature that they can even decrease the number of Malkot that a simple reading would indicate, hold greater esteem even than a Sefer Torah.
Though we may not all be able to “make Torah our profession,” and arguably should not all do so, Rav Yehoshua’s message is fundamental to the way we conduct our lives. Judaism unquestionably believes strongly in the overarching value of action – hence the 613 Mitzvot – but not in action alone. As the Sefer HaChinuch develops in his beautiful essay on the Mitzvah of Shiluach HaKein (from earlier in Ki Teitzei; see 22:6-7), the purpose of all the actions Hashem prescribed is, ultimately, to effect changes in our character. If we truly wish to achieve the highest level of following the Torah, we must not only perform the actions, but make them an integral part of our behavior pattern and character.