Chazal describe Shavuot as zman matan Torateinu, the time when Hashem gave us His holy Torah. The world-shaping significance of our subsequent acceptance of the Torah (kabbalat haTorah) is given powerful voice in Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Bereishit I:
“And it is taught in a baraita, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: ‘Why does it say in [the verses depicting] the Creation of the Universe, day one, second day, third day, fourth day, fifth day, sixth day, and what is the reason for the [seemingly superfluous] letter heh [in yom hashishi]? [After all,] in all other instances the text only states, yom echad, yom shani and so on.
“This is coming to teach us that the Holy One blessed be He stated this condition to the entire Universe: ‘If the Jewish people will accept the Torah that is comprised of five books [hinted at by the numerical value of the letter heh =5], then all will be good [that is, all that has been created will continue to exist]. If not, however, I will return everything that exists to its pre-Creation state (tohu vavohu).’”
According to this midrash, the continuation of the Universe was contingent upon the Jewish people accepting the Torah.
Little wonder, then, that Chazal consistently emphasize the singular import of Torah study. One of the best-known examples that gives voice to this idea is Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 127a:
“These are the matters that a person does them and enjoys their profits in this world, and nevertheless the principal exists for him for the World-to-Come, and they are — Honoring one’s father and mother, and acts of loving kindness, and bringing peace between a person and another, and Torah study is equal to all of them (v’talmud Torah k’neged kulam).”
If talmud Torah is k’neged kulam, what is the nature of the relationship between Torah study and other mitzvot? This crucial question is addressed in Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 40b:
“And there already was an incident in which Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za, in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater (talmud gadol) or is action greater (ma’aseh gadol)?
“Rabbi Tarfon answered and said, ‘Action is greater.’ Rabbi Akiva answered and said, ‘Study is greater.’ Everyone answered and said [that is, the consensus was], ‘Study is greater, but not as an independent value; rather, it is greater, as study leads to action (talmud gadol sh’hatalmud mavi l’yedei ma’aseh).’”
Rashi interprets the concluding phrase of our passage, “talmud gadol sh’hatalmud mavi l’yedei ma’aseh,” as: “nimtzau shneihem b’yado” — both Torah study and action will be within his grasp.”
According to this approach, since talmud Torah enables the proper fulfillment of mitzvot actions, it complements ma’aseh. In other words, while Rabbi Tarfon champions the notion ma’aseh gadol, and Rabbi Akiva ostensibly argues and states, “talmud gadol,” they are not actually in disagreement. Instead, both of these Torah giants agree that study is greater, but not as an independent value; rather, it is greater because it leads to action.
In his Chidushei Aggadot on Kiddushin 40b, the Maharal of Prague advances our understanding of the ultimate value of mitzvot actions: “Ma’aseh gadol: [This statement of Rabbi Tarfon] means that action is indispensable, whereas the Torah that one learns in order to perform [a particular act] is not as fundamental as the ma’aseh [itself], as the ideal outcome [of Torah study] is the proper fulfillment of [the mitzvot]. This is the case, since man is not exclusively an intellectual entity, for, [only if he was] completely cerebral would his Torah be his very being. … Therefore, action is the essence [of humankind].”
According to the Maharal, while talmud Torah is a central part of Jewish living and a powerful component of our intellectual makeup, it is nonetheless insufficient if it does not lead to mitzvot observance.
This is congruent with the well-known axiom in Pirkei Avot: “v’lo hamidrash ikkar elah hama’aseh (Torah study is not the essence, but rather, the deed).”
With Hashem’s help, may we be zocheh to attain the ideal stated by Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yossi: “V’halomed al manat la’asot (And one who learns in order to do is given the opportunity to learn, teach, observe and do).” V’chane yihi ratzon.