Rabbi Label Lam
A Dose of Our Own Medicine
R' Bana'a used to say; "Whoever studies Torah for with a pure motive, his
Torah scholarship becomes an elixir of life as it is said, "It is a Tree of
Life to those who fast to it..."(Proverbs 3:18) However whoever studies
Torah for an ulterior motive his Torah scholarship becomes a deadly poison
to him..." (Tractate Taanis 7A)
A person should always be busy with Torah and Mitzvos for ulterior motives,
because through the ulterior motive he will come to the pure motive.
(Tractate Pesachim 50B)
How do we reconcile these two Talmudic statements? On the one hand it is
dangerous to engage in Torah study for some other reason and on the other
it seems to be a requirement. Is it always or never good to learn Torah
with a foreign- motive? Tosfos offers a distinction that helps to resolves
the apparent contradiction. It all depends upon the nature of the motivation.
If the person is being encouraged to learn in order to get some reward like
a candy, or to be considered for a worthy marriage partner, or even to gain
honor then that's fine and dandy. Is the person to wait to be perfect to
begin to do Mitzvos? That day will never come.
We all require regular behavioral modifiers to jumpstart and maintain
appropriate behavior. After a while the flavor of virtue is its own reward.
Over time a person can be weaned from lesser to higher incentives. When one
seeks Torah knowledge for the purpose of argumentation, however, then it is
Years ago I was giving a class in prison. We were learning the laws
pertaining to proper behavior in a synagogue. At one point we quoted the
sagely statement from the Talmud Brochos, "Someone who does not come to
synagogue is called a wicked neighbor!"
When I looked up and read their reaction I knew immediately that something
was wrong. There was this head dance going on. A group of fellows were
exchanging glances and confirming something. I realized that I had
inadvertently armed them and I needed to diffuse the bomb.
I told them as we had learned above that the Torah is a "Tree of Life" or
alternately "a deadly poison". When is it a healthy medicine? -When we take
it for our own improvement. That which we just learned, "Someone who fails
to come to Synagogue is called a wicked neighbor" , is for us to know about
ourselves when we are flip flopping in our beds and deciding if we should
make the minyan today or not. None of us wants to play the role of the bad
neighbor, so we might thereby kick ourselves out of bed.
However, when considering why Mo, Larry, or Curly doesn't make it to the
prayers in the morning we have another active principle, "Judge your nation
to the side of merit" (Vayikra). He has a good reason why he doesn't come.
We don't have to know what that reason is. He's tired. He's depressed. He's
busy with some other pressing matter. Whatever!
What we learn here is in order to change our own behavior. If we approach
it that way and allow it to do so, then it is a life giving force. If,
however, the information we gain here is to be used as a weapon to bludgeon
others just to feel just and throttle them into submission to gain moral
superiority then it is a terrible mixture.
A traveling lecturer came to a certain town and was discouraged by the
local Rabbi, "These people are too difficult to reach even with the best
speech. They're "Yenemite Jews"!" The visiting speaker corrected him, "You
mean Yemenite Jews! What does that have to do with anything?" "No! The
Rabbi explained, "YENEMite. (In Yiddish YENEM means 'others') Everything
you say they think you're talking about someone else, but just not them."
The preacher understood what had to be done. He delivered a fiery and a
clear sermon on the lesson of taking personal responsibility and not
pointing fingers at others. When he was done, a group of congregants
gathered around and told him, "That was one of the most important and
inspiring speeches ever and that fellow over there, he really needed to
hear it!" Receiving the Torah as a "Tree of Life" on Shevuos may be a
simple or as difficult as agreeing to take a dose of our own medicine.
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Label Lam and
Project Genesis, Inc.