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Masei: Learning Torah Without Ulterior Motives

ויסעו מאילם ויחנו על ים סוף.

And they traveled from Eilam and camped at the Yam Suf.” (Bamidbar 33:10)

Our holy sefarim, specifically the Chovos Halvovos, teach us that when a person learns Torah he should have no ulterior motives and learn only for the sake of Heaven. A person should cleanse his mind of foreign thoughts and intentions and focus only on serving Hashem. If he does have ulterior motives for learning Torah it may well be that he isn’t even serving Hashem; on the contrary, he may be serving his own interests or trying to gain favor in the eyes of other people, making him no better than an idol worshipper, G-d forbid. Even if he “also” wants to serve Hashem, this may be considered avoda zara b’shutaf – faith in Hashem combined with idol worship. We must think deeply about this issue and search our hearts to ascertain how far away we are from serving Hashem completely for the sake of Heaven.

There is a famous story of the Yismach Moshe zt”l. When he was a young man he would learn with tremendous diligence in the empty women’s section of the shul, trying to avoid attention. He took great care not to be noticed by others. One day two people happened to enter the women’s section and saw him learning. The Yismach Moshe felt a small seed of arrogance entering his heart, followed by the thought: “Oh, so now someone saw how I learn secretly.” The moment this thought passed through his mind, he regretted it. “What have I done?” he berated himself. “Was this why I learned Torah all of these years, to have such thoughts?”

He became so upset that he wanted to stop learning altogether, but then he told himself that it says (Joshua 1:8): “And you shall toil in [learning] day and night.” He remained undecided. Should he stop learning because of the impure motives that entered his heart for a moment, or should he continue learning despite everything? Finally, he decided that he would never give up learning Torah, even for a second. Every moment of learning is a mitzvah. But what about these improper thoughts? He reassured himself that Hashem would help him overcome them, as the Gemara says (Pesachim 50b): “A person should always engage in Torah learning and do mitzvos even if they are not purely for Heaven’s sake, for through doing so he will eventually arrive at doing things for Hashem’s Name.” Why does the Gemara say the word “always”? It would have been enough to say that a person should engage in Torah learning. The Yismach Moshe interpreted this to mean that even if the reason for his improper motives is the fact that he is “always” learning, and this brings him to arrogance, he shouldn’t stop learning. He should continue in his ways and eventually Hashem will help him that these improper motives will fall away.

The sefer Arugas Habosem brings a profound insight in the name of Rebbe Shimon Sofer zt”l, the son of the holy Chasam Sofer zt”l. He quotes the verse in Tehillim (39:2-4), “I thought to myself that I would guard my ways from sinning with my tongue, I will protect myself and lock my mouth, while the wicked is still against me. I became as if dumb and was silent even from saying good [words of Torah], and my pain was frightening. A warmth was in my heart and my thoughts burned like fire, and I spoke with my tongue.” Why does the verse say at first that he was silent, and then he concludes that he did speak? He explains these verses as follows: I thought to myself that I would guard my ways and lock my mouth to learn Torah only for the sake of Heaven; as long as the wicked yetzer hara is still against me, trying to plant arrogance in my heart, I would rather remain silent. I became as if dumb and didn’t learn Torah, but this was most painful of all. A warmth, a deep longing for Torah, was in my heart and I decided that I don’t care, I wouldn’t refrain from learning, even if due to my improper, arrogant thoughts I would burn in the fires of Gehinnom! I will continue speaking words of Torah with my tongue regardless of these concerns, because eventually all improper thoughts would be banished.

We may add to this the next verse: “Inform me, Hashem, of the end of my troubles, and what is the measure of my days; let me know when it will end.” What is the continuation of this verse to what has been said before? Dovid Hamelech is asking Hashem with deep pain: “When, oh when will I finally reach the point of being able to learn solely for the sake of Heaven? When will my troubles and inner conflicts end?”

This may be the meaning of the verse: “And they traveled from Eilam and camped at the Yam Suf.” The word eilam can mean silence. The Jewish people went away from their silence of Torah and camped at the Yam – the Sea. Torah is compared to the sea, as it says (Iyuv 11): “[The Torah is] broad like the sea.” The word sufcan mean “end.” They understood that in the end all of their ulterior motives would be fall away and their Torah learning would remain completely pure.


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