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Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5776

Ein Ayah: Emotional Attachment is Not Enough

(condensed from Ein Ayah, Shabbat 2:140,141)

Gemara: There was another story of a non-Jew who came before Shammai and requested of him: “Convert me on condition that you will teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai pushed him with the amat habinyan (building measuring stick) that was in his hand.


Ein Ayah: One of the foundations of the Torah is to improve and embellish the natural emotion for good and justice that flows from the divine light in a person’s soul. Because man has limited intellectual vision, he cannot span the many actions that are necessary to be done or avoided in order to actualize true good in the world. Therefore, he needs divine guidance, as Hashem is intimately aware of everything that exists in the world, from its beginning to its end, and is aware of what needs to be done to achieve full depth and breadth.

It is entrenched in the heart of the wise that the goal of the Torah should be justice and straightness. These are concepts that a person recognizes generally with his intellect and natural emotions. People, therefore, sometimes mistakenly think that just as one intuits the significance of the general principles, he should also be able to sense their connection to the specific laws of the Torah. Actually, the general principles are “planted” in the very nature of the soul, whereas the details are connected to the depth of Torah, which requires a great deal of study. Even after great efforts, the latter cannot be fully grasped because of its linkage to the full, great light of Hashem’s mind.

Intellect and emotion are man’s two legs in the spiritual realm, enabling him to pass through the land of life and perceive good and truth. The non-Jew who came before Shammai to convert was attracted to goodness and profundity by the influence of Greek thought. He wanted to appreciate the entire Torah with all its details just on the basis of emotion, which is what he meant by learning everything while standing on one leg.

Shammai’s choice of pushing him away with an amat habinyan has symbolic significance. In comparing emotion to many detailed good actions, we can use, as a simile, a measuring stick and a blueprint. Even though the measuring stick is of use when one builds a building, it is not one of the instruments that one uses to actually build it. One just uses it to determine how big the plot is and determine the dimensions of the building when it will be complete. This is different from specific actions and instruments that actually build the building.

Similarly, while emotion helps determine the general picture of what and where our spiritual building will be, there is a tremendous amount of crucial detailed action that has to be taken to bring it to fruition. The emotions can only determine the bottom level of the edifice of the Torah one is to internalize.

Only after the fulfillment and in-depth study of Torah will one’s emotions reach the level that he can start to appreciate the connection between the specific mitzvot and the overarching principles of the Torah. Even so, the amat habinyan is designed only to measure that which is going to be done in the future or that which was already done. It is not an instrument that carries out the building. In Torah, we must internalize that only belief in Hashem and love of Torah and mitzvot, which are the path that Hashem set out for us, are the instruments of the fulfillment of Torah. Emotion can only capture the general element of the matter, but a greater level exists.

When Shammai saw that this conversion candidate came with a weak, emotional interest, which was not fit for a life of building a Torah lifestyle, he pushed him with the amat habinyan. This showed that the person was trying to build a great building with nothing more than a measuring stick.

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