The Challenge of Oral Law by Rabbi Benny Berlin

The mishna in Bava Metzia (2:8) states that if one finds a Torah scroll, until he finds the rightful owner, he should take it out and read it once every thirty days, in order that it not become moldy and moth-eaten. If he cannot read, he must roll them from beginning to end in order to air them out.
However, if one has not yet read or learned a particular passage, he should not spend time reading and learning this passage in the Torah scroll he found. The reason is because one has to spend considerable time when he learns the passage for the first time, and this could cause wear and tear on the scroll, damaging it. Nor may another person read with them, since each unconsciously pulls the scroll towards themselves, and the scroll may become damaged. The principle is that the finder is allowed to do any activity that preserves the Torah scroll, but not one that may damage the Torah scroll.

I learned from Rabbi Citron who quoted from the Ramban a fascinating distinction. He notes that when it comes to the Written Law, opening the scroll and skimming it is usually sufficient, because the passages are already familiar.
However, if one has not seen a passage, it will require additional time and effort to learn it well, and this may cause damage to the scroll.

However, this distinction only holds true in regard to the Written Law. When it comes to the Oral Law, “even one who has learned a passage a hundred times still requires intensive focus and effort to understand it, just as it did the first time he learned it; the opposite in fact is true—the more one is expert in a particular subject, the more he will spend time attempting to understand it on a deeper level.”

The Ramban distinguishes between the Written Law, which can be learned and remembered with relative ease, in contrast to the Oral Law, which requires intensive, continual efforts to master.

The Gemara in Shabbat 88a famously notes that Hashem “kafa aleihem har k’gigit”- He “held a barrel over their heads” and coerced the Jewish people to accept the Torah. The commentaries (Tosafot, Maharal and others) ask:
ואע”פ שכבר הקדימו נעשה לנשמע!
How can this be true?! Didn’t the Jewish people already say: “Na’aseh v’Nishma”—”We will do and we will listen”?

This free-willed, voluntary acceptance of the Torah illustrated that B’nei Yisrael had learned the secret of the angels, who first accept and do the mitzvot, and only later attempt to understand their deeper meaning. Why then was there a need to force B’nei Yisrael to accept the Torah?!

The Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach, Siman 3 provides an answer. The Jews willingly accepted the Written Law at Mt. Sinai. The Written Law is a fixed, limited amount of material, which can be covered in a relatively short period of time. However, concerning the Oral Law, the Jewish nation had to be “coerced” into accepting it. As the Midrash states; The Oral Law is difficult to learn, and requires great exertion of effort, and can be compared to “darkness.”

One who dedicates himself to learning the Oral Law must be prepared for long hours of study and sleepless nights. Frustration and setbacks are common. Therefore, the Midrash concludes that the study of the Oral Law is therefore reserved only for those who love Hashem:
Similarly, the Gemara (Shabbat 88a) notes that only during the times of Purim did the Jewish nation finally voluntarily accept what they had been forced to accept at Mt. Sinai; they finally accepted the Oral Law.
אבל בימי אחשורוש קבלו מדעתם מאהבת הנס
They were motivated to do so “out of love for the miracle” (Tosfos).
As we read about the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai this Shabbat in Parashat Yitro, let us commit to redoubling our efforts in the study of Torah Shebe’al Peh. True, it is not easy. However, the reward is based on the effort that we put forth, and this activity illustrates our profound love for Hashem.