In Parashat VaEtchanan, Hashem warns Bnei Yisrael to be careful “Pen Tishkach Et HaDevarim Asher Ra’u Einecha,” “Lest you forget the things that your eyes saw [at Har Sinai]” (Devarim 4:9). Rashi (4:10 s.v Yom Asher Amadta) comments that this refers to the thunder and torches that Bnei Yisrael saw at Har Sinai. The Pasuk in Parashat Yitro (Shemot 20:15) tells us that as Bnei Yisrael gathered near Har Sinai, they saw “HaKolot” meaning that they could see the thunder. Rashi (ad. loc s.v Ro’im Et HaKolot) quotes Chazal who famously explain that Hashem made a miracle that the Jewish People could see the thunder which normally cannot be seen. Although this is an extremely impressive miracle, why does Hashem warn us not to forget this? There were many other miracles which Hashem could have picked for us to remember.
In his Nefesh HaChaim, Rav Chaim Volozhin explains that seeing the thunder at Har Sinai symbolized that the Torah is the only thing in life. Bnei Yisrael saw that the physical world is an illusion and the only thing which is true is the Torah. This is based on the concept found in Kabballah of “Istakeil BaOraytah UBara Alma” which means that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world. The physical world is merely a manifestation of the Torah and the Torah is what really comprises the entire universe. Hashem was warning Bnei Yisrael not to forget that the Torah is the world and that the physical world, although it may look real to us, is not.
After warning us not to forget the thunder at Har Sinai, Hashem warns us “UFen Yasuru MiLevavecha Kol Yemei Chayecha” “and lest they [the words of the Torah] depart from your heart all of your days” (4:10). Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:10) writes that one is obligated to learn Torah until the day he dies. He quotes the aforementioned Pasuk as proof and explains that whenever a person does not learn, he forgets.
Rav Ya’akov Kamenetzky asks why one would think that Talmud Torah would not be important throughout a person’s entire life? Does Rambam have to tell us to wear Tzitzit or Tefillin our whole life? It must be that Rambam believes that there are two separate aspects regarding Talmud Torah. The first is to know the whole Torah and to know the Halachot in order to fulfill all of the Mitzvot. The second aspect of Talmud Torah is to learn it one’s whole life. Usually, Talmud Torah refers to learning for the sake of knowing Halachah. Rambam adds in the Halachah of learning Torah one’s whole life as the second Mitzvah of Talmud Torah – to learn even when one knows the entire Torah and all of the Halachot.
Some people complain that Jewish schools and Yeshivot focus too much on Gemara and analytical thinking of complex and often hypothetical cases. They argue that schools should instead just teach bare bones Halachah. From this comment of Rambam we see, though, that although everyone should be taught or learn Halachah, learning the Gemara’s back and forth and trying to understand its underlying principles is just as important in Talmud Torah.
Let us all try to “see the thunder” and understand that the Torah is the only thing that matters in our lives. The world revolves around Torah and Torah is real unlike the physical world. Through this recognition, let us rededicate ourselves to both facets of Talmud Torah – learning to know Halachot, and learning for its sake and for the sake of getting closer to Hashem.