I’ve always loved Star Wars. I have childhood memories of watching the movies and playing for hours with Star Wars Lego sets with my brother. I can also recall the bruises on my hand from the intense “light saber” duals my brother and I would have with our plastic rods.
Now that I’m older and have left the world of Legos and plastic rods, Star Wars represents the nuanced nature of the world. In the fictitious universe a mysterious entity called “The Force” binds all living things together. The force has a light side and dark side, and all who use The Force must be diligent to not abuse it so as to turn to the dark side of The Force.
If the reader could just humor me for a few moments, I see the Torah a lot like The Force. It binds a people group together for a common purpose and it is a life-force that brings God down to earth. However, it also demands from its adherence a certain balance and a fair dose of sensitivity as to how it is kept. For one the Torah can become and is a source of blessing and life. However, if kept with the wrong attitude the Torah can become a force of death. It contains a dual reality that one must be aware of and depending on how a person utilizes the Torah it can become either life or death.
Well, I may not be entirely alone in my assignment of the Torah. Rabbi Benah taught that the Torah depending on how a person approaches it could either be a healing medicine or a death inducing poison:
Rabbi Benah said, all who engage in the Torah for its own sake the Torah becomes for him an elixir of life. As it says, “It is a tree of life of those to take hold of her,” (Proverbs 3:18) and it says, “For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.” (Proverbs 4:22) Anyone who does not engage the Torah for its own sake, the Torah becomes for him a deadly poison. As it is written, “May me teaching drop like rain,” (Deuteronomy 32:2) the word used here for “rain” can also mean “killing.” As it says, “And break the neck of the calf there in the valley.” (Deuteronomy 21:4; b.Taanit 7a)
According to Rabbi Benah the Torah is either a source of life or death. For those who engage the Torah for its own sake it is an elixir of life. However, for the person who comes to the Torah with ulterior motives it becomes a deadly poison.
To understand Rabbi Benah’s teaching we need to understand what it means to engage in the Torah for its own sake, and the opposite which is to not approach the Torah for its own sake.
The most straightforward understanding of what is means to engage in the Torah is to study it. Studying the Torah leads to action. In Judaism study is hardly ever separated from action. The rabbis consider the study of the Torah to be equivalent to all the commandments because the study of the Torah will lead to the observance of the commandments.
Studying the Torah then is the way we engage with it. So what does it mean to study the Torah for its own sake? A way I have frequently heard this idea explained is that to study in the Torah for its own sake means that you should not come to the Torah with the expectation of gaining a reward. While this is certainly true and something our Master taught I feel that this may not be the whole story. Of course one should always serve God and engage in his Torah out of love. However, the proof texts used by Rabbi Benah seem to indicate that the Torah does carry some type of reward. The Hebrew Scriptures verify in several places that the Torah brings her guardian’s wealth, honor, agricultural abundance and long life. Based on these promises provided by God himself it is only natural for us to look forward to an award if we engage in God’s Torah properly.
Yet, despite the reality of an award, we keep the Torah solely for our love for God. So what then does it mean to engage in the Torah for its own sake? It means that you delve into the Torah for the sake of bringing honor to God. The Torah demands utter humility. We are to come to it like empty vessels waiting to be filled with the Godliness it contains. The Rabbis taught that God can only dwell in broken vessels (Zohar IV 46). Meaning, our humanity must be broken in order to allow God to fully live through us. This is, in my understanding of the proper way to approach the Torah, to come to it with a humble heart. This also reflects the character of the lawgiver, Moses who is described as the most humble man to have ever lived (Numbers 12:3).
The opposite of this is to come to the Torah with the expectation that it will build your ego. Rabbi Yeshua taught us that we should never keep honor the commandments for the sole sake of being honored by men:
Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. (Matthew 6:2)
Notice how Yeshua does not say that they receive no reward, but that their reward is experienced in this world. They forfeit the reward of the world to come for praise from men. Yeshua even went as far as to teach that we should not seek the honor of being called “Rabbi” (Matthew 23:8).
The medieval French rabbi Rashi took a similar approach to Yeshua in his commentary on the Talmudic passage cited above. Rashi tells us that what is meant by not engaging in the Torah for its own sake is coming to it with the expectation that it will make you grand, that people will call you “rabbi,” and that others will honor you because of it.
A person who uses the Torah for his own personal self interests is someone who comes to the Torah not looking for how it transform him to the image of God, but how it can be used to inflate his fantasies of grandeur.
The Torah when used as method for ego building is a deadly poison. Not only does it poison its possessor it also poisons those around him. In contrast, the person who engages in the Torah for its own sake makes the Torah as an elixir of life. This person comes to the Torah understanding that it will transform him into a person of God, and that his mind will be renewed from the ways of this world to the ways of God.