In contrast to the various detailed discussions about the finite physical boundaries of different types of Eruvin, today’s daf (Eruvin 21a) includes an exquisite teaching – quoted by Rav Chisda in the name of Mari bar Mar – about the sheer vastness of Torah.
The teaching begins by citing a verse from Tehillim 119:96 stating, “I have seen a limit to every purpose; but Your commandment (i.e. the Torah) is exceedingly broad” where David points to the vastness of Torah – but does not attempt to explain or quantify how ‘exceedingly broad’ Torah is.
It then proceeds to cite Iyov 11:9 which states, “Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” which, though using the metaphor of the earth and the sea which captures the dual dimensions of length and breadth, is still – at least according to Mari bar Mar – an inadequate description of the vastness of Torah.
Then the prophet Yechezkel (2:10) speaks of God having, “spread it (i.e. the entirety of Torah) out [as a scroll]…[which was] was inscribed [both] inside and outside”. Yet while the description here is more sophisticated in terms of speaking of the Torah as being inscribed on both sides, here too the reader is unable to fully grasp quite how vast Torah truly is.
In fact, it was only during the lifetime of the prophet Zechariah when a sufficiently detailed description was offered that measurably captured the vastness of the Torah, as we are taught: “I see a flying scroll; the length of it is twenty cubits, and the breadth of it is ten cubits” (Zechariah 5:2) which then inspires the Gemara to calculate and conclude that ‘the Torah is 3200 times greater than the universe’.
Clearly there is much wisdom that needs to be unpacked from each of these verses. However, when I was learning this Gemara a specific question occurred to me which I was then delighted to see addressed by a number of commentators, and whose answer I would like to share.
The question is a simple one: presuming the value of having a teaching/verse that measurably captures the vastness of the Torah, why is it that Moshe (who authored Iyov), David (who authored Tehillim) and Yechezkel were unable to fully describe the vastness of Torah, and that only Zechariah was gifted with this insight?
According to Rabbi David Eisenstein (see his ‘Eshed HaNechalim’, where he bases his answer on a remark of Rabbi Naftali Hertz Trivish in the introduction to his siddur), ‘there are times when later generations are given the opportunity to discover and reveal novel Torah insights that previous generations were unable to do so, and even though the earlier generations were greater than the later generations, they weren’t worthy to do so since their generation was not the right one to reveal this novel insight.’
What we learn from here is that while spiritual greatness is often a measure of spiritual understanding and insight, there are certain ideas that need to be revealed at certain times, and that the spiritual needs of the time are the ultimate determinant factor in God deciding which insights should be shared in any given generation.
Especially within Orthodox communities, we are trained to think that each generation is spiritually weaker than the previous one. Yet thought this is true in various ways, the diminishing spiritual level of the people does not mean that there should be a parallel diminishment of the quality and clarity of the spiritual insights that we receive and share. In fact, it may be argued that periods of spiritual confusion are the optimum time for us to receive the clearest and most compelling of spiritual insights.
Ultimately, what we learn from this exquisite teaching of Mari bar Mar is that Torah is both vast and great, yet while the revelation happened at Sinai, Torah insights continue to be revealed to each and every generation according to the specific spiritual needs of the time.