Those who have some familiarity with Judaism may be wondering how we could have covered so many topics dealing with the core essentials of the religion, and not yet touched on the subject of Torah study. It’s a valid point. The fact is that statements abound in all the sections previously covered – Chumash, the Prophets, the Writings, second temple literature – that stress Torah study and even elevate it to the level of an essential. None of them, however, explicitly state that it is the purpose of creation. Being as we’re searching in that very lofty region, we’ve had to wait until the era of the Mishna to find such a statement concerning the study of the Torah.
What were they studying? All through the Biblical and post-Biblical periods the focus of study was understanding the books themselves. The words, the laws, the rituals, the central ideas about God and the role of human beings, the destiny of the Jews – these were the core of any pre-rabbinic Torah. But with the early rabbis, a new approach to Torah study emerged. This was the idea of studying the Torah strictly for its own sake. Studying Torah for its own sake (l'shma), in all likelihood was around in some form the entire time. Those rabbis, however, enshrined it as the very pinnacle of Torah study. The exact meaning of Torah l’shma remains subject to debate, but it certainly eliminates all ulterior motivations. These could include reputation, social standing, material benefits, and any goal that doesn’t include God in some manner. The bottom line – it means studying Torah because God gave it to us and required us to understand it and live it both as a people and as individuals. It was Rabbi Meir, a student of Rabbi Akiva, who crystallized this idea. His statement about Torah l’shma comes at the beginning of the last chapter of the tractate of the Mishna called Avot.
“Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who are engaged in (the study of) Torah for its own sake merits many things; and not only that but the entire world is worthwhile for his sake. He is called friend, he is beloved, he loves the Omnipresent (God), he loves God’s creations, he makes the Omnipresent rejoice, he makes God’s creations rejoice. It (the Torah) dresses him in humility and fear. It prepares him to be righteous, pious, honest, and faithful. It keeps him away from sin and brings him to merit. Others benefit from him through advice, wisdom, understanding, and strength… It gives him royalty, dominion, and acute judgment. It reveals to him the secrets of the Torah and becomes an ever-growing spring and a river with no end. He is modest, patient, and forgives personal insult. It elevates him and raises him above all things.”
The tough part about doing anything ‘for its own sake’ is that it means not doing it for ‘my sake’. Take away the ‘what’s in it for me?’ component and it loses a lot of the flavor. It’s no different with the study of Torah. There’s a lot of room for ego boosting in Torah study. There’s the title of Rabbi; there might be some opportunities to make a few bucks; and there’s just the good feeling of ‘I know a good chunk of this ancient wisdom, how about that.’ Getting around all that is anything but easy. Studying it just to know it, studying it to know how to live a better life with it, or studying it to attain oneness with God, goes contrary to normal tradition in intellectual pursuits.
Rabbi Meir doesn’t talk about just studying Torah l’shma; he describes it as ‘being engaged’ in Torah l’shma. The difference here is vast. If the moment the books are closed or the computer gets shut off, the subject gets put on ice – that's study. If, however, the closing of the books means its time to roll up the sleeves and get down to the real work of doing it, of living it, then one is ‘engaged’ in the study. Such study is not only an intellectual exercise. It is an engagement of the entire being, from the will to the mind to the emotions to the body. Torah, from its very inception, was never meant to be an ivory tower activity for the intellectual elite. It is a tool, a guide, and a life companion, to enable us to live with others and with ourselves.
What about that claim that the world is worthwhile for the sake of a person who actually lives it for its own sake? While this statement does seem a bit over-reaching and self-promoting, it does have a ring of truth to it. Would the world not be a better place if everyone were somehow engaged in living life in a way that everyone could live a better one? The person fully engaged in a Torah life for no other reason than that this is the way God wants a Jew to live, that this is the path the will lead him or her to being all that he or she could be, is likely among those God had in mind in embarking on this creation project in the first place.
Rabbi Meir, however, did not make the audacious claim that such a person is indeed the very purpose of creation. What he said was that the world is worthwhile because such a person is around. A person dedicated to truly seeking out the path of Torah because it puts a little more godliness in the world, because it makes others feel that life is worth living. The feeling may not arouse the emotions like a powerful movie. Nor will it impress the senses in the way that music or delicious food can hit the spot. That person will not command the attention of others like a powerful athlete or a beautiful woman. But their influence will be felt in a subtler manner – through silence and modesty, through honor and respect, through caring and dedication, through stimulation and enthusiasm, and perhaps most of all, through wisdom and love of life.
Rabbi Meir even provided us with a list of criteria to know that we indeed have such a person in our midst. That list gives the very qualities through which life gains that subtle but infinitely desirable feeling of being worthwhile.
Friend – a person who is there for you when you need someone
Beloved – one whom others feel devoted to and worthy of their respect
Loves the Omnipresent – one who adores and reveres the mystery that lurks behind it all
Loves all creation – somebody to whom nothing is trivial, no person unworthy of love
Makes the Omnipresent rejoice – in having brought such a person into being
Makes all creation rejoice – in being worthy of being
It dresses him in humility and awe – revealing the immense power of the human soul - to see without needing to be seen
It prepares him to be righteous, pious, honest, and faithful – a genuine human being, a mentsch
It keeps him from sin and brings him to merit – an ability to distinguish good from evil
Others benefit from him through advice, wisdom, understanding, and strength – his faculties are not his alone, they are gifts to help guide others
It gives him royalty, dominion, and acute judgment – he retains a uniqueness that others sense and respect
It reveals to him its secrets – it becomes for him a source of discovery and wonder
It is an ever-growing spring – a source that is always fascinating and never routine
He is modest, patient, forgives insult – the world does not revolve around him and his feelings
It expands him and raises him above all things – he is able to soar above the trivialities of social convention, to reach beyond the confines of the ego, into the true depths of the soul
Rabbi Meir wasn’t mincing his words in praising this person. The lofty goal of true engagement in Torah for its own sake was, in his eyes, the highest of ideals. The challenge was, and is, enormous. But the rewards were, and are, limitless. A person who grasps this challenge and succeeds has achieved nothing short of giving the world purpose. What could possibly be a more noble aim in life?
This is not an easy one. There is no question that most who attempt to scale this loftiest of heights will not attain the summit. However, some of Rabbi Meir’s successors detected a kind of shortcut that eased the task, at least at the beginning. The famous rabbinic statement, ‘Through doing it not for its own sake, one will come to do it for its own sake’, was meant to encourage Torah study and Torah living even when one’s personal motivation was not 100% pure. Whether or not it really works is another matter entirely. There is no doubt that there have been, and still are, plenty of people who’s Torah involvement starts out not for its own sake and it remains that way forever. This is an unfortunate fact of life. However, it does not have to be that way.
Maybe it’s the holiness of the Torah that makes it happen. Maybe it’s the unique soul of the person involved. More likely, it’s the fortuitous combination of the two that activates this miraculous transition. When it happens it is truly amazing. It may not last forever even after a successful transition. It may not even last a day. It may be nothing more than a flash of insight into the deepest and most mysterious spiritual pathway of the Torah. But once experienced, it remains indelibly imprinted on the soul like a delicious taste that lingers in the palate. This is the uniquely Jewish path to God – it is Torah as it was meant to be. Somehow, for that moment or that hour or that day, it makes all life feel worthwhile and purposeful. Why this happens, perhaps, should not be asked, as it may take away from the wonder and meaning of the event. But it does, and it’s out there waiting to be tasted - for its own sake.
The Torah, in all its various incarnations and avenues, is described as the inheritance of the Jewish people. Whether they have managed to transmit that inheritance accurately and in a manner that makes it accessible to as many Jews as possible, is up to debate. But it is what we have. It is the responsibility of every Jew to claim their birthright. If a Jew shirks this responsibility it is like leaving an old will unclaimed in a safe deposit box. If it is not studied and claimed it lies useless. This is the unfortunate state of the Torah for most Jews. They have the right and the obligation to claim what is theirs by the Jewish rules of inheritance. Demand it back. Demand it of your rabbi, of your synagogue, of your Jewish friends on some social network. Demand it of your spouse, of your parents, of your kids. Demand it of yourself. Most important of all, demand it of God. Demand that God give you the wherewithal, the will, the patience, and the time to delve into your birthright. It is yours, your Torah.
Food for Thought
Rabbi Meir paints a pretty lofty picture of what a Torah scholar could and should be. Why is it that most Torah scholars fall far short of the level that Rabbi Meir describes here despite supreme dedication to their studies?
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