The transformational power of Torah
Rabbi Yehoishophot OliverIn the first chapter of the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe describes the various unworthy character traits of the Jew’s Bestial Soul: anger, arrogance, frivolity, depression, laziness, and so on. But then the Alter Rebbe explains that by nature, this soul also possesses certain noble qualities, listing as examples the traits of compassion and the desire to perform deeds of loving-kindness. This is drawn from the Gemara, which states of the Jewish people: “Three signs identify this people: They are merciful, bashful, and they perform deeds of loving-kindness.” But why does the Alter Rebbe omit the quality of bashfulness from his list of traits?
Another question may be asked. The Gemara states: “Why was the Torah given to the Jewish people? Because they are strong-willed.” Rashi comments: “The Torah was given to them so that through consistent study of it, it would weaken the strength [of their evil inclination] and subdue their hearts.” The Gemara then cites the verse, “From His right hand, He presented a fiery law to them,” explaining: “Hashem declared: ‘These people are fit that the fiery law be given to them.’” The Maharsha there explains that because of the Torah’s fiery power, it is fitting for the Torah to be given to them, in order to subdue and humble them. The Gemara then interprets that verse in a different but similar manner: “The nature of these people is fiery, for had the Torah not been given to the nation of Israel, no nation or tongue could withstand them.”
What emerges from this is that since Jews are fiery, audacious, and strong-willed, the fiery energy of the Torah is crucial for them to counter their nature and humble their hearts before Hashem.
So by nature, Jews are very strong-willed—and even more so than non-Jews. (Perhaps this explains the stereotype in the secular world of Jewish chutzpah, insolence.) But, the Maharsha asks, doesn’t this contradict another statement of our Sages stating that Jews possess the quality of shame? He explains that this quality is different from those of loving-kindness and compassion. The Jewish people are not naturally bashful; rather, they acquire this quality by virtue of their consistent Torah study.
Likewise, the Maharsha continues, the verse describes the purpose of the revelation at Mount Sinai: “So that the awe of Him will be on your faces, so that you not sin.” Our Sages explains that “the awe of Him” refers to the quality of being susceptible to shame, which leads to “so that you not sin”—fear of sin. So the awesome phenomenon of the Revelation at Mount Sinai imbued shame before Hashem and fear of sin within the souls of the Jews present, which they then bequeathed to their descendants. This clearly demonstrates that the quality of bashfulness comes to us from the Torah.
This also explains why the Alter Rebbe omits the quality of shame from his list of Jewish traits, for this section of Tanya is devoted to explaining the natural qualities of the Jew’s Bestial Soul. In general, Jews are naturally warm, friendly people. They enjoy doing favors and bestowing hospitality; similarly, they cannot bear to see others in pain, and so they strive to care for the needy, destitute, and downtrodden. Since these feelings comes naturally for a Jew, he or she will typically act in this way even if, for whatever unfortunate reason, he or she is not yet Torah-observant, or is significantly lacking in observance.
Bashfulness, however, which is related to tznius (modesty) may not come naturally to a Jew. On the contrary, by nature Jews are even more chutzpah’dik (insolent) than non-Jews, as mentioned. However, through devotion to Torah, a Jew subdues his Bestial Soul. Then not only will he not behave insolently, but on the contrary, he will rise to a far more advanced level of shame and modesty than non-Jews.
It should be noted that although women are exempt from studying Torah to the degree required of men, Torah will also subdue their evil inclinations:
a. When they study topics in Torah relevant to them, as Jewish law requires of them;
b. When they encourage their menfolk to learn Torah, as the Gemara states: “How do women acquire the merit of Torah? By bringing their sons to school to learn Torah and by allowing their husbands to learn in the Beis Midrash, and waiting for them to come home.”
Likewise, it appears that although all Jews are obligated to fix times for Torah study, baalei esek, those who must be involved in the world in order to earn their livelihood, have a portion in Torah, which helps them subdue their evil inclinations, by supporting Torah scholars.
This awareness of the awesome power of Torah study to keep us “on the straight and narrow” should dramatically change the way we view Torah study. Torah study is not some kind of spiritual luxury, a noble deed, and an act of selfless love and devotion for Hashem. Torah study is the medication for the evil inclination, as the Gemara says, “If this vile one encounters you, drag him to the Beis Medrash [house of Torah study].”
In summary, when the Gemara states that the Jewish people possess the quality of shame and modesty, it is referring to a potential. The intense experience of the Revelation at Sinai imbued within the Bestial Soul of a Jew the potential for consistent Torah study to transform his personality, such that he will excel in shame, modesty, and bittul (submissiveness) before Hashem.
May we all merit that this potential reach full fulfillment within us, and may we succeed at influencing our fellow Jews who need it to do likewise.
 Yevamos 79a.
 Beitzah 25b.
 Devarim 33:2.
 Chiddushei Aggados on Yevamos ibid.
 Shemos 20:17.
 Nedarim 20a.
 See The Laws of Torah Study in Shulchan Aruch Admur HaZaken, ch. 2.
 Berachos 17b.
 Kiddushin 15a.
This post was dedicated by Reb Kasriel ben Yehudis and Chana Feige bas Reizl (my parents, tzu langeh, gezunteh, zisseh yoren) in honor of their 36th wedding anniversary. This post was also dedicated by Reb Menachem Kovacs, who requested that this message be attached:
"Zachor: to mark the 6th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Gush Katif and the Northern Shomron; we continue to pray and work for their restoration and for the Ge'ula Shlayma. Thank you."
Like what you read? The articles I write take a lot of time and effort. Please contact me to sponsor an article for $36 in honor of the birthday, wedding anniversary, or yarhtzeit of a loved one, or for a refuah shleimah or the like. Also, see here concerning the tremendous merit of supporting the dissemination of Chassidus, and the blessings that one receives for doing so.