Parashat Vayikra: “An Animal Carcass is Better Than Him”
Parashat Vayikra begins with G-d calling to Moshe, inviting him into the Mishkan. Although Moshe had spent forty days together with G-d in the heavens, and oversaw the entire project of constructing the Mishkan, he did not enter the sacred site without being summoned by G-d. In his extraordinary humility and impeccable sense of propriety, Moshe understood that despite his unparalleled stature, it would be inappropriate for him to enter the Mishkan before being summoned by the Almighty.
The Midrash notes Moshe’s conduct and the vital lesson of proper Middot that it teaches us, and then comments, "Any Torah scholar who does not have Da’at [knowledge] – an animal carcass is better than him." What exactly do the Sages mean by the term "Da’at," and why did they employ such drastic language, stating that a scholar without Da’at is on a lower level than an animal carcass?
Rav Yishak Hutner (1906-1980) explained the term Da’at by noting the opposite ways in which it is used. The Torah in Parashat Bereshit uses this term in reference to intimacy – "Ve’ha’adam Yada Et Hava Ishto" ("Adam ‘knew’ his wife Hava"), indicating that it refers to closeness. However, on Mosa’eh Shabbat, we insert the paragraph of Habdala in the Beracha of "Ata Honen," which speaks about wisdom, because we need wisdom to distinguish between sacred and mundane. Here, "Da’at" refers to distinction and separating between two ideas. Rav Hutner thus explained that "Da’at" means the ability to determine the appropriate time to draw close and the appropriate time to keep a distance. Moshe understood that on this occasion, after the construction of the Mishkan, it was appropriate for him to keep a distance, to remain outside the Mishkan, until he was called. This was indeed "Da’at," a reflection of Moshe’s refined character and ability to discern the appropriate mode of conduct in any given context.
The Midrash comments that a Torah scholar without "Da’at" is worse than a "Nebela" – the carcass of an animal that died without proper Shehita. Rav Hutner explains that such an animal is forbidden for consumption, yet, interestingly enough, its hide may be used as parchment for a Sefer Torah. As long as the animal belongs to a kosher species, its skin may be used for a Sefer Torah, even though it did not undergo proper Shehita and thus its meat is forbidden for consumption. It turns out, then, that even a Nebela has the possibility of being elevated. Although the meat is forbidden and is considered Tameh (ritually impure), it nevertheless can be raised to great heights of Kedusha by being turned into a Sefer Torah.
And in this sense, a Nebela is on a higher level than a Torah scholar without "Da’at." If one studied Torah and amassed significant amounts of knowledge, but the Torah did not affect his character as it is meant to do, and he does not become elevated, refined, more ethical and more courteous through his learning, than he is worse than a Nebela. He has shown that he is incapable of elevation, that even through serious engagement in holiness he cannot be changed and uplifted.
We should try to be, at very least, no worse than the Nebela, and display the openness and ability to be raised and inspired by the Torah we learn, and ensure that it leads us to higher ethical and moral standards and to become more refined, noble people.