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Shiur #41: Torah Study for its Own Sake (Part II)

  • Harav Baruch Gigi


            In the previous shiur, we discussed one aspect of studying Torah for its own sake. As we saw, the focus of studying Torah study for its own sake is the practical observance of the material being studied. We clarified that we are not concerned solely with technical knowledge, in the sense of "And you shall show them… the work that they must do" (Shemot 18:20). Rather, we are also concerned with deep spiritual identification with Torah study, and the development of a profound connection to the subject matter of Torah. Such identification forms a person who aspires to actualize the Torah that has been studied, with all of its practical details and unique values.

            This is the full meaning of the verse cited above, which deepens and broadens the perspective on the entire system of Torah and mitzvot:

"And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do." (Shemot 18:20)

            This perspective extends far beyond the action that is necessary at a particular moment. A servant of God sees all of "the statutes and the laws" before his eyes. He seeks God with his entire heart and soul, contemplating the "way"[1] that he paves for himself along the road that ascends to the house of God. In this way, he approaches "the work that they must do."

            In this shiur[2] we will discuss studying Torah for its own sake from two additional perspectives, which we will try to unite into a single path.

I. Studying Torah out of Love – The view of the Rambam

            The Rambam writes as follows in Hilkhot Teshuva:

The Sages of the previous generations declared: One may say: I will study Torah in order to become wealthy, or in order to be called a Rabbi, or in order to receive reward in the world to come.[3] Therefore the Torah states (Devarim 11:13): "[If you are careful to observe My commandments…] to love God;" [implying] that everything you do should only be done out of love.

The Sages also said: (Tehilim 112:1) "Desire His commandments greatly." [Desire His commandments] and not the reward [which comes from] His commandments.

In a similar manner, the great Sages would instruct their more understanding students in private: Do not be like servants who serve their master [for the sake of receiving a reward]. Rather, since He is the Master, it is fitting to serve Him; i.e., serve [Him] out of love.

Anyone who occupies himself with the Torah in order to receive reward or in order to protect himself from retribution is considered one who is not occupied [with Torah] for its own sake. [In contrast,] anyone who occupies himself with it, not because of fear, nor to receive a reward, but rather because of his love for the Lord who commanded it, is one who occupies himself [with the Torah] for its own sake.

Nevertheless, our Sages declared: A person should always occupy himself with the Torah even when it is not for its own sake, for out of [service which is not intended] for its own sake will come service that is intended for its own sake. Therefore, when one teaches children, women, and most common people, one should teach them to serve out of fear and in order to receive a reward. As their knowledge grows and their wisdom increases, this secret should be revealed to them [slowly], bit by bit. They should become accustomed to this concept gradually until they grasp it and know it and begin serving [God] out of love. (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:4-5)

            Ideally, Torah study, fulfillment of the mitzvot and service of God in general should be performed out of love. In the Rambam's discussion, this is contrasted to those who serve God out of fear of punishment or out of love of reward. The Rambam emphasizes the importance of serving God and studying Torah out of love for God and the aspiration for closeness and communion, and not out of consideration of reward and punishment.

            The Rambam connects this love to the search for pure truth:

One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it. This is a very high level which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our Patriarch, Avraham, whom God described as, "he who loved Me," for his service was motivated only by love. God commanded us [to seek] this rung [of service] as conveyed by Moshe, as it is stated (Devarim 6:5): "Love God, your Lord." When a man loves God in the proper manner, he will immediately perform all of the mitzvot out of love. (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:2)

            According to this position, Torah study and service of God for its own sake stem from knowing and recognizing the truth. The roots and foundations are found in knowledge of God – knowledge of the world and of God's governance of that world, together with knowledge and study of God's Torah and wisdom.

            This study creates connection to and communion with the source of truth. As the Rambam formulates it:

One can only love God [as an outgrowth] of the knowledge with which he knows Him. The nature of one's love depends on the nature of one's knowledge. A small [amount of knowledge arouses] a lesser love. A greater amount of knowledge arouses a greater love.

Therefore, it is necessary for a person to seclude himself in order to understand and conceive wisdom and concepts which make his Creator known to him according to the potential which man possesses to understand and comprehend. (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:6)

            The Rambam already emphasized these ideas in his introduction to chapter Chelek:

…When, further, he reaches the age of greater discretion, this prize also loses its worth for him. He recognizes its paltry nature and sets his heart upon something more desirable. His teacher then says to him: "Learn, in order that you may become a Rabbi, or a judge; the people will honor you, and rise before you; they will be obedient to your authority, and your name will be great, both in life and after death, as in the case of so and so." The pupil throws himself into ardent study, striving all the time to reach this stage of eminence. His aim is to obtain the honor of men, their esteem and commendation.

Now, all this is deplorable. However, it is unavoidable because of man's limited insight, as a result of which he makes the goal of wisdom something other than wisdom itself, and assumes that the purpose of study is the acquisition of honor, which makes a mockery of truth. Our Sages called this learning not for its own sake. They had in mind the kind of person who performs the commandments and energetically studies Torah not for their own intrinsic worth but with some other purpose in mind. Our Sages warned against this and said: Do not make the Torah a crown for self-glorification or a spade with which to dig (Avot 4:7). They hinted at what I have just explained to you, that the goal of wisdom is neither to acquire honor from other men nor to earn more money. One ought not to busy oneself with God’s Torah in order to earn one's living by it; nor should the goal of studying wisdom be anything but knowing it. The truth has no other purpose than knowing that it is truth. Since the Torah is truth, the purpose of knowing it is to perform it. (Introduction to Chapter Chelek)

            Thus, it is clear that the servant of God, one who loves and fears Him, and is a man of truth, seeks no external objective in his study or in the mitzvot that he performs. As is stated in the book of Tehilim:

Happy is the man… his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law does he meditate day and night. (Tehilim 1:1-2)

Happy is the man that fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments. (Tehilim 112:1)

            The innermost yearnings of a servant of God are desire for the Torah and the mitzvot themselves; Torah for the sake of the Torah and mitzvot for the sake of the mitzvot, and nothing else.

            So writes the Shela, Rav Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz, when explaining the Rambam's position:

His words there indicate that the true servant [of God] does not direct his service to any end whatsoever, other than the mitzva itself. Such a person is called by our Rabbis: One who serves out of love. (Ma'amar Shelishi u-Revi'i, note 113)

II. For the sake of the Torah – the view of Rav Chayyim of Volozhin

            Rav Chayyim of Volozhin introduces a new definition of the idea of Torah for its own sake. Ostensibly, his approach is very different from that of the Rambam, as we presented it above. In our opinion, however, there is a connection between them. Rav Chayyim distinguishes between "for its sake" with respect to Torah study and "for its sake" with respect to observance of the mitzvot. This highlights the essence of Torah for its own sake from his perspective.

            We will first examine his words and then attempt to define the principles of his view.

            In Part IV of his book, Nefesh ha-Chayyim, Rav Chayyim of Volozhin writes as follows:

In truth, "for its own sake" means "for the sake of the Torah." What this means is like that which the Rosh says about the statement of Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Yitzchak (Nedarim 62b): "Do things for the sake of their Maker, and speak [words of Torah] for their own sake." This is what he says: "Do things for the sake of their Maker – for the sake of the Holy One, blessed is He, who has made everything for His own purpose; and speak [words of Torah] for their own sake – all of your speech and discussion concerning the words of the Torah should be for the sake of the Torah, to know and to understand, and not to rebuke or to boast."

He is precise in his explanation of the change in the wording used by Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Tzadok, for regarding action he says: For the sake of their Maker, whereas regarding speech he says: For their own sake. Therefore regarding action he explains: For the sake of the Holy One, blessed is He, who has made everything for His own purpose, and regarding study he explains: For the sake of the Torah, etc. His intention is clear: The performance of a mitzva in the choicest manner requires devotion and the purest thought in accordance with a person's intellect and comprehension… This is "for the sake of their Maker," for "He has made everything for His own purpose"…

While it is true that even with respect to the mitzvot, the indispensable aspect is the actual performance, whereas the intentions and pure thought are not indispensable, as was explained… nevertheless the sanctity and purity of one's thought combine to achieve greater repair of the worlds than would have been the case had the mitzva been performed without devotion and purity of thought.

But concerning a person's behavior when occupied with Torah study about the mitzvot and their laws, he says: "And speak of them" – that is, speaking about the mitzvot and their laws should be for their own sake, that is, for the sake of the words of Torah, that is, to know and understand them. This is what the Gemara says about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, that he did not leave [Scripture, Mishna, or Gemara unstudied …] to fulfill what is stated: 'That I may cause those that love Me….'" … that it has the power to bestow great reward upon anyone who meditates and occupies himself with it out of love of it itself, that is, to add to his knowledge of it. This is "those who love Me." (Nefesh ha-Chayyim, part IV, chapter 3)

            Rav Chayyim distinguishes between the performance of mitzvot and the study of Torah.

            Concerning the mitzvot, it says: "Do things for the sake of their Maker," for the sake of God. A mitzva performed perfectly must stem from an aspiration to cleave to God, so that God will be praised by the action and as a result great bounty will be bestowed upon all the worlds.

            Concerning Torah study, Rav Chayyim emphasizes that its essence is study for the sake of intellectual understanding, to know and to understand, to achieve greater insight – but here he retreats from the idea of devotion. Rav Chayyim is well aware of the importance of devotion in the service of God in general, certainly when dealing with observance of the mitzvot. However, regarding the mitzva of Torah study, he demands the Torah student to invest all of his energy in the intellectual challenge, to know and to understand the word of God, as told to us through His Torah.

It is difficult to accept that Rav Chayyim means to say that one who studies Torah must completely detach himself from the idea of devotion when he is occupied in his study. It is hard to believe that a person who aspires to cleave to God in his prayer and his fulfillment of the mitzvot, in the entirety of his service of God, is required to cut himself off from the spiritual world which he toiled to build through his prayers, his fulfillment of the mitzvot, and his striving in every aspect of his life, when he sits down to study Torah. It seems that a person is not obligated to devote himself exclusively to the intellectual dimension so that he can understand the Torah and attain new insights into it, and ignore the service of God that encompasses his life.

It is more reasonable to assume that Rav Chayyim sees the Torah student as a servant of God whose love for God burns within him and in his soul. Out of this love, he wishes to achieve wisdom and understanding.

Later on in Part IV, Rav Chayyim emphasizes the importance of the fear and love of God as the foundation of his study. According to him, the fear of God is a necessary condition for Torah study. As he writes there:

It is certainly impossible to say that purity of thought and fear of God are not necessary for Torah study, God forbid. For we learned in a Mishna: If there is no fear [of God], there is no wisdom… And as our Rabbis said in tractate Shabbat (31a): "Resh Lakish said: What is meant by the verse: 'And there shall be faith in your times…' (Yeshayahu 33:6)? 'Faith' refers to the Order of Seeds…." He interprets that verse as referring to the entire Talmud, "but nevertheless, 'the fear of the Lord is his storehouse.'" The verse likens the Torah to bounteous grain and the fear of God to a storehouse that holds all that grain and preserves it. The fear of God is the storehouse for the wisdom of the holy Torah, through which the latter endures for a person. If a person did not first prepare a storehouse of fear for himself, the bounteous grain of Torah will be as if it is strewn across a field to be trampled by oxen and donkeys, God forbid, and will not endure for him at all. (Nefesh ha-Chayyim, ibid. chapter 4).

Moreover, the fear of God which preserves a person's wisdom bestows bounteous blessing from God upon him. This blessing strengthens his Torah wisdom and understanding, as is emphasized later in the passage:

And according to the store of fear that a person prepared for himself, so the grain of Torah can enter and be preserved and endure within him, as much as his storehouse will hold… So too His hand is always open, as it were, to bestow wisdom and understanding on every man of His chosen people, so that it should endure for them, and bind them to their hearts. So that He will delight in them when they arrive in the world of rest with their knowledge at their fingertips. However this depends on the store of fear that the person prepares for himself in advance. For if a person prepared a great storehouse of pure fear of God for himself, so God will bestow upon him wisdom and understanding with great bounty as can be held by his storehouse, all in accordance with the size of his storehouse. (ibid, chapter 5)

Above all, Rav Chayyim emphasizes the need for love and devotion to God in order to sanctify oneself through Torah study. This is what he writes in the following chapter:

In truth, this is the true path that He chose, blessed be His name, that whenever a person prepares himself to study, before he begins, he should settle himself for at least a short amount of time in the pure fear of God with a pure heart. He should confess his sins from the depths of his heart, so that his Torah is holy and pure. And he should attempt to cleave to the Torah and to the Holy One through his study. That is to say, to cleave with all his power to the word of God, to this halakha. And in this way he cleaves to God Himself, as it were. For He and His will are one, as is stated in the Zohar… For the entire Torah, its generalizations and its details and its minutiae, and even that which a young disciple asks his master –all issued from the mouth of God to Moshe at Sinai…

As is explained in the holy Torah, in Devarim: "To love the Lord your God," which our Rabbis explained in Nedarim (62a) as referring to Torah study. See the end of the verse: "and to cleave to Him." Therefore King David said: "The law of Your mouth is better to me [than thousands of gold and silver]" (Tehilim 119:72). He meant: My heart is happy when I toil in the holy Torah with great strength as I remember that it is the law of Your mouth, for every word of the Torah with which I occupy myself at this time issued, and even now issues from Your mouth. Therefore, the entirety of the holy Torah is of equal value with no difference whatsoever, God forbid. (ibid., chapter 6)

It seems, therefore, that Rav Chayyim does not mean to exclude the love of God and devotion to Him from Torah study. Even according to him, Torah is not just rational knowledge like any other science which one must labor to understand exclusively through the tools of reason.

On the contrary, a Jew's spiritual world must be filled with love and fear and devotion to God. With them he approaches the task of studying the word of God, His wisdom and His Torah. The love of God that burns within him guides him along a path of seeking to fully understand the word of God. This is study for the sake of knowing and understanding the word of God.

Based on the recognition of the truth of the Torah and its superiority over all other sciences, and the understanding that everything in the Torah is the word of God, a person is required to invest all of his energies in understanding the Torah. This is not just Torah study for the sake of the Torah, to add knowledge and insight. This is study of the word of God. Every understanding, every new insight, is itself God's Torah and the word of God in the mouth of the student.

This is the reason that for the sake of intellectual study there is a need for sanctification and purification, for love and fear, for the recognition that this is the truth. Desiring to occupy himself with the truth because it is the truth, the Torah student seeks to understand and reveal and create the word of God, to magnify the Torah and to glorify it.

(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] It is stated regarding Avraham that he brought up his children not only to perform certain actions, but to keep God's way: "For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice…" (Bereishit  18:19).

[2] As was emphasized in the previous shiur, we will not be able to encompass this entire topic in this framework. We will limit ourselves to two shiurim devoted to this topic.

[3] In the Sifre it says: "'To love the Lord your God.' You might say: I will study Torah so that I may become rich, or so that I may be called Rabbi, or so that I may receive reward in the World-to-Come. Therefore the verse states: 'To love the Lord your God.' All that you do should be done only out of love" (Sifre, Ekev, 41).

A similar passage is found in Pesikta Zutrati, Ekev: "All that you do should be done only out of love. You should not say: I will study Torah so that I may be called a Sage, or so that I may receive reward in the World-to-Come, or so that I may become rich. Therefore the verse states: 'To love' – occupy yourself [in Torah study] out of love, and reward and honor will eventually come."

These expositions are offered on the biblical passage of "Ve-haya im shamo'a," which emphasizes the reward and punishment of rain and blessing which will be bestowed upon those who do God's will, or will be withheld from those who transgress it. We will discuss this tension in our discussion of this biblical passage.