A classic Jewish saying goes like this: “a person can be a renegade with the permission of the Torah.”
Of course, this does not mean that God’s Torah, which Paul describes as holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12), actually permits a person to behave like a scoundrel. The saying is an honest description of our ability as humans to manipulate God’s Word to justify our own selfish desires. Rabbi Benah illustrated this reality by comparing the Torah to a drink that, depending on how it was used could be a medicine or a 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. (b.Taanit 7a)
According to Rabbi Benah, the Torah can be either a source of life or a source of death.
To fully appreciate Rabbi Benah’s teaching, we need to understand what it means to engage in the Torah for its own sake and, likewise, what the opposite means.
First, to engage with the Torah for its own sake mean upholding its commandments and studying her wisdom without expectation of a reward or the praise of men. It means you obey God’s will because it is his will and not because you think it will get you the praise of men. As our Master Yeshua taught, “They have received their reward in full…..but your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:2, 4)
Another explanation of what it means to keep the Torah for its own sake is to approach the Torah with the utmost humility, recognizing that when God’s righteous Torah judges us, we are completely unrighteous. The rabbis taught that God can dwell only in broken vessels (Zohar IV 46), meaning that God seeks the humble hearted who are willing to allow him to transform their lives into what he has defined as holy, righteous, and pure. This attitude is reflected in the character of Moses, who the Torah describes as “the most humble man to have ever lived” (Numbers 12:3).
What I have described so far is the ideal mode of Torah living—sincere and humble. However, our fallen nature can easily twist the Torah into a means by which we can selfishly build our egos. A person who uses the Torah for his self-interests is someone who comes to the Torah, not looking for how it can transform him into the image of God, but how it can be used to inflate his fantasies of grandeur.
Our Rabbi Yeshua warned us against keeping the commandments as a way to gain praise from 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 given in this world. In essence, according to Yeshua, they choose the temporal reward of men over the greater reward from God.
The famous medieval Bible commentator Rashi taught (1040-1105 CE) in a fashion similar to Yeshua’s in that we should never engage with the Torah for the sake of men’s praise.
The Torah, when used as a method for ego-building, is a deadly poison. Not only does it poison its possessor, but it also poisons those around him by giving them a bad taste of what God’s holy Torah actually is. In contrast, the person who engages the Torah for its own sake brings praise not to himself but for God. He brings healing to those around him by showing them that God’s ways are better and more life-giving than anything this world could offer.