Let’s work with the last paragraph on the first page of the Bemidbar Sfas Emes, That paragraph begins: “R. Meir omeir: ‘Kohl ha’oseik baTorah lishma … ” (ArtScroll: “Whoever engages in Torah study for its own sake … “).
What, exactly, is “Torah lishma?” ArtScroll’s translation, just quoted, is the mainline pshat. But we should be aware that great debates have swirled around this question. Thus, for example, a major theme of R. Chayim Volozhiner’s sefer Nefesh Hachayim is clarifying what is “Torah lishma” (and what is not!)
The Sfas Emes begins with a definition that looks simple. “Torah lishma”, says the Sfas Emes, is exactly what its sheim (name) indicates. The word “Torah” means instruction. Hence, “Torah lishma” means learning to provide instruction; that is, learning in order to know how to live one’s life.
Note how far we have come from the mainline pshat of “Torah for its own sake”. And the Sfas Emes immediately adds new ingredients making for a much richer dish. He quickly dispels any notion that intellectuality per se is part of the story. On the contrary, as the Sfas Emes told us last week (Bechukosai, 5632), our objective in learning Torah should not be “lei’da” — to acquire knowledge — and/or “le’hasig ” — to make intellectual achievements. Rather, our goal in learning Torah should be to subordinate our personal intellect, so that we can know and follow retzon HaShem (the will of HaShem).
(It would be a mistake to conclude from the preceding sentences that the Sfas Emes was anti-intellectual. He was so involved in intellectual activity that he completed his chidushim on Shas before he was 25 years old. And thereafter, when he became Gerrer Rebbe, his ma’amarim always conveyed deep thought.)
The Sfas Emes moves on now to another topic. This parsha — and the Sefer that it begins — are called: “Bemidbar”; that is, “in the desert”. Accordingly, the Sfas Emes focuses on the meaning of the key word: “midbar” — to see what additional information it may contain. First, he alludes to two Medrashim in Medrash Rabba which work with the word “midbar”. These Medrashim resonate with the word “midbar” in other contexts. Conceivably, they may provide additional information on the word “midbar” in the present context.
One Medrash (Medrash Rabba, Bemidbar, 1:7) tells us that to progress in the study of Torah, a person must de-emphasize his ego. That is, he must consider himself “hefkair” — accessible to all claimants — like the midbar, the desert. A second Medrash (in Medrash Rabba, 1:2) cites the midbar as the place where Bnei Yisroel welcomed HaShem’s Presence. The Sfas Emes then gives us his own non-pshat on “midbar.” We know the shoresh (root) DBR in leshon hakodesh means “to speak”. The Sfas Emes points to another meaning of that root: namely, “to lead”. So far, the Sfas Emes is on solid, non-controversial etymological ground. He then proceeds to more allusive territory. If DBR means “to lead”, he finds it plausible to read MDBR as an Aramaic passive form; i.e., “to be led”. Thus, Bnei Yisroel in the midbar on their way to Eretz Yisroel conducted themselves as people who had given themselves over totally to HaShem ‘s leadership. Similarly we, in traversing segments of our lives that may resemble a midbar, should try to live in accordance with HaShem’s will. This perspective follows directly from the Sfas Emes’s reading of “midbar” as “being led.”
The Sfas Emes offers us a simile, from Yeshayahu (10, 15) to help us achieve this new self-image, He suggests that we view ourselves “ka’garzen be’yad he’chotzev” (“as the axe in the hand of the wood-cutter”. This simile should sound familiar. We encounter it in one of the piyutim on the night of Kol Nidrei). There is a great paradox/challenge here. For this subordination of our will to retzon HaShem itself requires a strong act of volition on our part.
The Sfas Emes concludes this paragraph of his text by calling up another pasuk in Yeshayahu (43:7): “Kohl ha’nikra bi’shemi ve’lichvodi berasiv”. (“Everyone who is called by My Name and whom I have created for My glory … “) But wait! The pasuk just quoted contains the word “shemi”. That word rings a bell. Earlier in this ma’amar, we saw a word from the same root (sheim), when the Sfas Emes was discussing “Torah li’shma.” So, with his artful crafting of the ma’amar, the Sfas Emes is telling us his concluding thoughts on this subject. “Torah Li’shma”, says the Sfas Emes, means: that we live our lives in a way that redounds to HaShem’s glory!
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.