Sometimes we can learn a text and do a double-take because either we suspect that we haven’t understood the text well enough, or it would appear that the text describes an outlook that sits outside the boundaries of what we think to be moral.
I mention this in reference to today’s daf (Megillah 27a) where, having been taught by Rabbi Yochanan that a Sefer Torah may only be sold in order to learn Torah or to raise the necessary funds to marry, we are then taught the opinion of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel who rules that it is forbidden to sell a Sefer Torah אפילו אין לו מה יאכל – even if someone doesn’t have food to eat.
On first glance, such a ruling simply seems incomprehendible, and though we find that later commentaries (see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 270:1) do acknowledge that a Sefer Torah can be sold if someone is starving and is therefore ‘under the most dire circumstance’ (ואפילו אין לו מה יאכל רק ע”י הדחק), it remains hard to make sense of the calculation between near death by starvation and selling a sefer Torah which, apparently, may be sold for seemingly less urgent needs such as to learn Torah or to raise the necessary funds to marry.
Troubled by this, I turned to a source and a deeply sensitive rabbinic voice where I suspected that this issue would be wrestled with – namely Rav Nachum Rabinovich (in his Yad Peshuta on the Rambam – Hilchot Tefillin, Mezuzah V’Sefer Torah 10:2), and not only did he do so through a thorough analysis of this Gemara, but through his commentary, he offers what I believe to be an important perspective about our priorities in life. As he writes: ‘The meaning of the words of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel are as such: אפילו אין לו מה יאכל – even if someone doesn’t have food to eat, and is therefore compelled to sell their possessions – but still has an assortment of possessions – yet such a person chooses to sell a Sefer Torah rather than any other possession’, then this will not bring them blessings.
According to Rav Rabinovitch, our Gemara is not coming to tell us that a person should, God forbid, starve rather than sell a Sefer Torah. Instead, it teaches us that a person shouldn’t select a Sefer Torah from amongst all their other possessions as the first thing they sell when they are in dire straits, because by doing so, this implies that they relate to sacred objects as forms of capital rather than as a source of sacredness.
Thank God, most of us have not found ourselves in such a situation. However, there are instances when our time is limited, or when we have more limited energy, when we need to reconsider what we keep in our schedule or what we have the energy to do. And though it is reasonable to evaluate all that we do, there is a tendency amongst some people to first remove Torah study, or to first remove a particular mitzvah, from their schedule.
It is to this tendency that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel addresses his words. True, Pikuach Nefesh gives us license to do almost anything for lifesaving, and true, we need to look after ourselves and balance what we do with what we have the time and energy to do. But the sacred shouldn’t always be the first to go, and it shouldn’t just be precious in terms of what we can get for it, but rather, what we get from it.