Rabbi Meir (Mai-eer) said: Anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (‘lishma’) merits many things. Not only that, but the entire world is worthwhile for him alone. He is called ‘friend’ and ‘beloved,’ he loves G-d, he loves man, he brings joy to G-d, he brings joy to man. It (the Torah) clothes him in humility and fear. It enables him to be righteous, pious, upright, and faithful. It distances him from sin and brings him to merit. [Others] benefit from him advice and wisdom, understanding and strength, as it says, ‘To me is advice and wisdom, I am understanding, and strength is mine’ (Proverbs 8:14). It gives him kingship, dominion and analytical judgment. It reveals to him the secrets of the Torah. He becomes as an increasing stream and an unceasing river. He becomes modest, slow to anger, and forgiving of the wrongs done to him. It makes him great and exalted above all of creation.
Last week we discussed the concept of studying Torah “lishma”, literally, “for its sake.” We asked that this seems very uninspiring. The meaning would seem to be that we study Torah not because it is exhilarating and brings us closer to G-d, but simply out of blind obedience — because it is G-d’s will. To this we explained that there is no contradiction. G-d’s will is precisely that: that we develop a relationship with Him by becoming more godlike people. Thus, when we study Torah — becoming overwhelmed and exhilarated with the knowledge of G-d — we are at the very same time studying Torah for its sake — to fulfill G-d’s ultimate desire that man become close to Him. In Torah study more than any other mitzvah (good deed), G-d’s will and man’s desire become one and the same.
It is interesting to note that there is often a very fine line between the person who studies for G-d’s sake and the one who studies out of his own interest. Both people may develop an inherent love for Torah and may in fact become consumed with a passion for Torah knowledge: True intellectuals often become passionate about their area of expertise. They both may study with the same intensity and may be equally accomplished scholars. (The Talmud (e.g. Sanhedrin 106b) does state regarding scholars who were less sincere that they did not merit to study “in accordance with the law” — that they did not reach the correct conclusions (for as we know, extensive intellectual hypothesis can easily vacillate on account of very minor considerations). Thus, there is a very real element of Divine assistance required for Torah study — one which only the truly sincere merit.)
There is, however, one critical distinction between the one who studies lishma and the one who does not — one we may discern from our mishna. Typically, we find people of great fame and/or talent (occasionally they go together), rather aloof from us regular folk. People such as great artists or performers are not always that easy to solicit for an autograph — let alone live with. They’re not always in the “mood” for interaction with others. They are somewhere on their own mystically high and mighty plane. When we hear interviews of such people they drip with such fullness of self as to appear very closed and unattractive personalities. They can go on endlessly talking about that all-consuming and inexhaustible topic: themselves. In their minds at least, they belong to a special clique of superior human beings — who do not lightly interact with ordinary mortals.
The great scholar of our mishna is very different from this, and it’s important to understand why. The list of qualities contained in our mishna is very extensive, and we will not attempt to deal with every quality. However, two general ideas — fascinatingly, contradictory ones — emerge. On the one hand, the scholar who studies lishma is elevated above and beyond the masses. The Torah makes him “great and exalted above all of creation.” He gains kingship and judgment; he fathoms the secrets of the Torah.
At the same time, however, the scholar becomes smaller in his own eyes — and becomes even more a man of the people. He becomes humble, pious and mild-mannered. He loves others and forgives the wrongs done to him. He also gives of his time freely to others, thus becoming a unceasing source of wisdom and advice. He sounds almost too good to be true. Why do we not find any trace of the aloofness and exclusiveness we would almost expect to find in such great Jews?
The answer is that true Torah study is very different from all other areas of study and achievement. Torah study is as much a humbling as an aggrandizing experience. When we study, we are not merely flexing our own intellectual muscles. We are drinking the waters of G-d’s wisdom. Even if our study involves advancing our own insights and perceptions, it is the beauty of G-d’s Torah we are uncovering, not truly our own. In Torah we see the wisdom and grandness which we — as well as every human being in G-d’s image — can latch onto. We thus not only feel special about ourselves and the Torah. We feel special about all mankind.
Thus, the true scholar — that is, one who learns for G-d’s sake rather than his own aggrandizement — will not only become wiser and more saintly, he will become humbler as well. He senses the infinite greatness of G-d and his own relative insignificance. He sees the Torah as a gift from an infinitely benevolent G-d — and a gift bequeathed to all of Israel. As his own knowledge increases so does his sense of obligation — to share the knowledge acquired by him yet meant for all Israel. Besides, if he is truly studying to fulfill G-d’s will — that the Torah be studied — why would he stop with himself? He will impart the Torah he has acquired to all willing to hear.
True Torah study therefore creates individuals almost too good to be true. They are rare — but not nonexistent. There are perhaps a few tens of such giants a generation. But Torah study is not their possession alone; it is meant for us all. The Talmud tells us, “One should always study Torah and perform mitzvos not lishma, for from not lishma he will come to lishma” (Pesachim 50b). We should not despair whatever our reason for studying — unless it is positively to mock. For the Torah will work its magic on you. It is impossible to study Torah and be the same person. It will open your eyes: it will force your eyes open. And irreversibly, you will never be the same.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.