June 21, 2021

Yoma 71

Today’s daf (Yoma 71a) includes what I believe to be a stunning insight about what it means to live a life that is guided by Torah laws and values.
As you may know, many of the verses in Mishlei (Proverbs) are understood to refer to our relationship with Torah wisdom, and it is there where we are taught that: כִּי אֹרֶךְ יָמִים וּשְׁנוֹת חַיִּים וְשָׁלוֹם יוֹסִיפוּ לָךְ – “for length of days, years of life, and peace will be bestowed upon you” (Mishlei 3:2).
The Gemara, in today’s daf, raises an interesting question relating to the meaning of the phrase וּשְׁנוֹת חַיִּים – “and years of life”, for “are there years of life, and years that are not of life?”. To this, Rabbi Elazar then explains that “this refers to the years of someone’s life that have become transformed from being bad to good.”
Reflecting on this teaching, the Ben Ish Chai (Ben Yehoyada on Yoma 71a) suggests that Rabbi Elazar derived his interpretation from the fact that the word וּשְׁנוֹת (literally ‘and years’) is etymologically related to the word שינוי (change). Thus, the verse can be re-read to mean: “for length of days, life-changing transformations and inner peace is bestowed upon those who follow the laws and values of the Torah.”
Personally, I am enamored by the transformational quality of Torah. Still, I think that in order for us to understand and appreciate how Torah can be life-changing for us and how a life of Torah can bring us to inner peace, we need to read the next two verses from the book of Mishlei which state: “May lovingkindness (חסד) and truth (אמת) never leave you; tie them on your neck and inscribe them upon the tablet of your heart, and find grace and favour in the eyes of God and humanity.” (Mishlei 3:3-4).
What this means is that the Torah that is life-changing and which can transform bad into good, is an expression of Torah where there is a fusion of lovingkindness and truth; where there is a balance of the intellectual (tie them on your neck) and the emotional (inscribe them upon the tablet of your heart), and one which emphasizes the relationships we must maintain both with God and with other human beings.
Unfortunately, there are those who have encountered expressions of Torah which have been oppressive rather than redemptive for them. For example, some experienced too much emphasis on אמת but too little on חסד, or too much on the intellectual, and too little on the emotional.
But just like the solution to a bad diet is not the cessation of eating but, instead, the recalibration of one’s food-intake to a better and more balanced diet, what we learn from these beautiful verses in Mishlei is that personal redemption and spiritual self-transformation can occur through Torah – but only when the balance is right.
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