Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” states in chapter 6:6: “The Torah is acquired in 48 ways.” This week: Way #9, “Purity”
The alert reader will notice that last week, like this week, I list a ninth way to acquire the Torah. That is because the list of 48 ways is not universally agreed upon. There are alternative listings for a few of the ways, such as the ninth way. The alternative to last week’s “joy” is this week’s “purity.”
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (1920-2013) had a staggering memory. Each of his answers to a query in Jewish law is filled with tens, scores or even hundreds of learned references. As he wrote, he did not look up his sources. That would have taken days or weeks, while he wrote in hours. References were stored in his prodigious mind, permanently retained upon first reading.
He was asked: Whence his phenomenal memory?
He responded by quoting, in part, Numbers 15:39-40: “ . . . do not be seduced by your heart and your eyes, after which you stray, so that you may remember and perform all of My commandments . . . ” Rabbi Yosef abridged the passage: “Do not be seduced by your eyes, so that you remember.”
“I remember,” he said, “because of my eyes.” They did not stray, did not look at parts of the human anatomy that one should not look at. Purity.
The acquisition of Torah is an exercise in purity. Not just the mind must be at work, but the soul. For it to shine forth, it must not be sullied. When it is pure, it becomes the handmaiden of the mind, smoothing the way to grasp the Torah’s teachings and to remember them all.
Rabbi Yosef’s response may rightly be regarded with some skepticism, as if his memory were only the result of his purity and not a rare, Divine gift. Even so, there is no doubt that purity aided his memory and is essential to acquiring the Torah.
For three days before the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, husbands and wives were bidden to separate from each other (Exodus 19:15; Shabbat 86-88), and so they did. The Divine word had to be received in purity.
The alternative, ninth way to acquire the Torah: Purity.
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