This Shabbos we learn the sixth chapter of Avos. The sixth chapter, sometimes called kinyan Torah/acquiring Torah, is learnt on the Shabbos preceding Shavuos in preparation for receiving the Torah. It begins, “רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה .../Rebbi Meir says, whosoever occupies himself with Torah for its own sake merits many things …” (Avos 6:1) What does it mean to occupy oneself with Torah לִשְׁמָהּ/for its own sake?
Simply put, we occupy ourselves with Torah for its own sake when we study it in order to know what to do. The word Torah itself comes from the root, לְהוֹרוֹת/to instruct. The Torah is primarily an instruction manual so that we may know how to lead our lives. This seems straightforward. Why, then, does Rebbi Meir imply that it is a high level. The answer is that it is not always easy to follow the dictates of the Torah. At times they are at odds with the conclusions of our intellect. At other times, we may not understand the reasoning behind the Torah’s laws. Regardless, we are enjoined to accept whatever the Torah demands of us even if we do not concur and even if we do not understand the reasoning. This is definitely not straightforward. In fact, the Midrash in this week’s parsha addresses this issue.
The Midrash is bothered by apparently extra words in the first pasuk of the parsha, “וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי .../God spoke to Moshe in the
The Midrash answers that the Torah is hinting that one can only acquire Torah wisdom if he makes himself hefker/ownerless like the desert. What does being ownerless like the desert mean? How does this apply to us? The Sfas Emes explains. When we understand that we have no ownership over our very bodies, that we have absolutely zero power and ability to act without a continuous influx of “existence power” from God we have reached a level on which we can be compared to the desert. The desert, a totally desolate place, is a metaphor for absolutely no positive value. As such, the desert offers no resistance to accepting anything outside of itself.
Another Midrash on the parsha compares God to a king who searches for a city in which to build his palace. He enters two cities and the people are so in awe that they run from him. In the third city that the king enters the people praise the king completely and unselfconsciously.
The third city is like the desert. Just as the desert, so too, the people have no puffed up feeling of importance. They are able therefore to approach the king in an unselfconscious manner and praise him. The people of the first two cities are unable to do so. Paradoxically it is there fear which hints to there feeling of self importance. Because of their feeling of self importance, that they have something to lose, they fear. The people of the third city have no self delusions about their own importance. They understand that they are nothing compared to God. There is nothing within them that would resist God and they are therefore able to accept Him and praise Him unselfconsciously.
This concept is alluded to by the Hebrew word for desert – מִדְבָּר. This word has within it the word דַבָר, Aramaic for leader. מִדְבָּר implies subjugation to the leader. This means recognizing that we have absolutely no power and ability to act without the continuous Godly life-force influx.
When we are like the desert in this respect, the Torah is given to us as a present as Chazal explain the pasuk, “... וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה/… and from the desert it was a gift.” (Bemidbar 21:18) The Torah is a gift to those who make themselves like the desert, completely accepting of its dictates.
The Sfas Emes explains that the first two cities are an allegory for the nations of the world. The nations believe that their power is independent of God. In this respect, Chazal teach us that the nations refer to the Creator as the God of gods – אֱ-לָהָא דֵאלָהַיָא. The nations believe in the one God. However they believe that He is the greatest of a pantheon of gods. They believe that they have powerful gods who imbue them with power. The third city is an allegory for the nation of
This concept is further developed in a saying of Chazal that we say each morning, “לְעוֹלָם יְהֵא אָדָם יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם בַּסֵתֶר וּבַגָלוּי .../A person should always fear heaven privately and outwardly …” The Sfas Emes explains the meaning of “privately and outwardly.” Fearing God outwardly means that when we recognize and understand that everything that happens is within the Divine Providence, we are moved to awe. Privately means that we internalize the awe applying it to everything we do with the understanding that there is absolutely nothing that we do that is not powered by God. We are like an axe in the hand of the woodsman.
This idea can help us understand an enigma regarding Rebbi Meir’s choice of words. Had Rebbi Meir said “study Torah” instead of “occupy oneself with Torah,” his message would have been clear. We need to study the Torah to know what to do and accept what we learn. However, the wording Rebbi Meir uses needs explanation. What does “occupy” imply beyond “studying”?
In order to understand what occupying oneself with Torah means we need to gain a deeper understanding of what Torah is. Technically, the power that God imbues in the world in order to keep it in existence is given through the Torah. The Torah is more than scrolls with words written on them. Chazal teach us that God created the world with the Torah. Accordingly, the Torah, is actually a very powerful spiritual entity. When God said, “Let there be light,” (Breishis 1:3) these very words became a spiritual power than gave and continue to give light its existence. It follows that when we say that God powers the entire world to continue to exist, He does so through a medium called the Torah. The power of the Torah thus permeates the entire Creation. This, of course, applies to our actions as well. Our every action is powered by the power of the Torah within it.
Therefore occupying oneself with Torah means more than studying the Torah in order to know how to act. It refers to our actions as well, since their motive power comes from the Torah. How can our actions be considered occupying oneself with Torah for its own sake, though?
The answer lies in the concept we discussed earlier. By recognizing that we have no independent power, that it is God, through the medium of the Torah who gives us the ability to act, we come to understand that our actions are a manifestation of divine will. If there were not, we would not have been able to do them. When we subordinate ourselves to that, consciously accept the divine will, and intend to act only so that God’s will manifests through us, we are occupying ourselves with Torah for its own sake. May we merit it!