What is Torah? The various definitions and characterizations that appear in the Torah itself and in the teachings of the sages give rise to a fundamental paradox regarding its essential nature and function. This fundamental paradox forms a cornerstone of the Rebbe’s approach to the study and understanding of Torah.

In his formulation of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, Maimonides writes:

The eighth principle is the divinity of the Torah. That is: We believe that this entire Torah which we now have is the one given by Moses our teacher, and is entirely from the mouth of the Almighty . . . There is no difference between the verses, “The children of Ham: Kush and Mitzrayim and Phut and Canaan,”1 “The name of his wife was Mehetabel the daughter of Matred,”2 or “Timna was a concubine,”3 and the verses, “I am G‑d your G‑d”4 or “Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is one.”5 For it is all from the mouth of the Almighty, all G‑d’s Torah—whole, pure and holy.6

Maimonides also emphasizes that not only the “Written Torah” (i.e., the five books transcribed by Moses) is divine, but also the “Oral Torah”—the entire body of interpretation and exposition which accompanies it.7 In the words of the Talmud,

Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud and Agadah, even what a proficient pupil is destined to innovate, was already said to Moses at Sinai.8

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes:

The Torah is the wisdom and will of G‑d . . . For it arose in His will that when, for example, Reuben will argue such-and-such, and Simeon will argue such-and-such, the verdict as between them should be such-and-such. Even if this particular case never was and will never be . . . nevertheless, since it has arisen in the wisdom and will of the Holy One, blessed be He, that if this one argues such, and the other argues such, the ruling should be such, then the person who understands and apprehends with his mind this ruling as a law that is presented in the Mishnah or the Talmud or the works of the halachic authorities—that person apprehends and grasps and encompasses within his mind the wisdom and will of G‑d, which no thought can grasp except when they are clothed within the laws that have been presented to us . . .9

On the most basic level, defining the Torah as “the wisdom and will of G‑d” establishes its absolute veracity and immutability.10 A prevalent theme in the Rebbe’s teachings is that the divinity of Torah also implies that the finite and mortal human mind is incapable, in and of itself, of apprehending it. Rather, Torah must be given to us. It is only because G‑d has chosen to “clothe” His infinite and essentially supra-rational wisdom and will “within the laws that have been presented to us” that we are capable of studying and understanding Torah. R. Abahu in Shemoth Rabbah cites the verse (Exodus 31:18) “He gave to Moses, when He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of testimony . . .” and expounds:

For the entire 40 days that Moses was above, he would learn Torah and forget. Said he to Him: “Master of the world! I have spent forty days, and I do not know a thing!” What did G‑d do? He gave him the Torah as a gift, as it says, “He gave to Moses . . .”11

Thus, throughout the writings of the sages, the revelation at Mount Sinai is referred to “the giving of the Torah.” We acknowledge this in the “blessing on the Torah” recited each morning: “Blessed are You, G‑d our G‑d, sovereign of the world, who has chosen us from all the nations and has given us His Torah; blessed are You, G‑d, who gives the Torah.”12 The Talmud declares: “Why was the land lost? Because they did not recite the blessing which precedes the study of Torah.”13 The failure to recite the blessing that acknowledges the “Giver of the Torah” is no minor infraction of law and custom, but one that goes to the very heart of what Torah is: a divine gift rather than a human achievement.14The finite and mortal human mind is incapable, in and of itself, of apprehending the divine wisdom

Accordingly, the Rebbe would often emphasize, a most important prerequisite for the study and acquisition of Torah is bitul, or self-abnegation.15 The Talmud states: “Why are the words of Torah compared to water? To tell you that just as water forsakes a high place and travels to a low place, so do the words of Torah endure only in one who is of a humble mind.”16 “An empty vessel can retain” that which is poured into it; “a full vessel cannot retain.”17 The study of Torah requires its student to engage the faculty that is the crowning glory of the human being—the intellect; yet an equally crucial requirement is that the person empty himself of the arrogance and pretension that a human mind—even the most astute and accomplished of human minds—is capable of apprehending the infinite and supra-rational mind of G‑d. The knowledge of and understanding of Torah is a divine gift, bestowed on those who approach its study with the humility and the commitment to “conceive, understand, listen, learn, teach, keep and do”18 that which G‑d desires of us.

The Talmud notes that the Torah begins with the letter ב (beit)—the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Would it not have been more appropriate to begin with the first letter, א (aleph)? A number of answers are given by the sages of Talmud as well as by the later commentaries.19 The Rebbe analyzes a number of these explanations and points to their common denominator: that the study of Torah is predicated on an awareness of its divine source. Before we read the very first letter of the text of the Torah, we acknowledge the unseen aleph that precedes its opening beit—a reality higher than intellect, a truth beyond what can be expressed in letters and words.20

The Al Hanisim prayer, which summarizes the story of Chanukah, describes the Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks as a battle with those who sought “to make them forget Your Torah, and to make them transgress the statutes of Your will” (להשכיחם תורתך ולהעבירם מחוקי רצונך). The wording of this key phrase, says the Rebbe, is significant, and is fundamental to understanding the history, miracle and observances of Chanukah:

The objective of the Hellenist decrees was to make the Jewish people forget Your Torah—the divinity and supra-rationality of Torah. They had no objection to Jews studying the intellect and wisdom of Torah; all they wanted was that this study should be devoid of any sense that this is G‑d’s Torah. Similarly, they sought to eradicate the statutes of Your will—that Jews should not fulfill the “statutes” (chukim), the Torah commandments that are supra-rational,21 and which are fulfilled out of simple obedience, solely because they are “Your will,” the will of G‑d.22

The Rebbe also applies this concept to explain a mysterious passage in the Talmudic account of the giving of the Torah. The Talmud23 examines the verses (Exodus 19:1–16) which describe the events An empty vessel can retain that which is poured into it, a full vessel can notleading up to the revelation at Mount Sinai, deducing from these verses what transpired each day from when the children of Israel arrived in the Sinai Desert on the first day of the month of Sivan until the giving of the Torah on the sixth (or seventh24) day of that month. On each of these days there were specific divine communications, and/or specific actions undertaken by the people, in preparation for their receiving of the Torah from G‑d. Regarding the first day of Sivan, however, the Talmud states that on this day Moses “did not say anything at all to them, because of the weariness of the journey.” This is most puzzling, in light of the fact that from the time that they left Egypt, six weeks earlier, the people were in a state of heightened anticipation for the giving of the Torah. They literally counted the days, and devoted each day to the refinement of another aspect of their character in preparation for the event that would constitute the fulfillment and purpose of their liberation from Egyptian slavery (a count and process of self-refinement which we reenact each year with the 49-day “counting of the Omer” from Passover to Shavuot). One would expect that the day on which they arrived at the site at which the Torah would be given to them would be a day of heightened activity and preparation.

The Rebbe explains that Moses’ silence and the seeming non-activity of the people on the first of Sivan were in fact a crucial preparation for the giving of the Torah. This was a day devoted to stilling the ever-active, ever-assertive human mind and transforming it into a recipient of Torah. This is the “wearying journey” of which the Talmud speaks: not the short trek from Rephidim to Sinai,25 but the spiritual and intellectual journey of making the most achievement-oriented of human faculties—the mind and intellect—into the “empty vessel” that can apprehend the essentially supra-rational truths of Torah.26