Question: I participate in daily Torah classes for a few years now, donate Tzedakah, and perform acts of kindness. However, I feel that the Torah I am learning and the Mitzvot I am performing is not necessarily for the sake of Heaven. What shall I do?
Answer: When one studies Torah and one’s intention is to become great and appear wise, this is considered learning Torah not for its own sake. However, our Sages taught (Pesachim 50b): “One should always delve in Torah, even not for its own sake, for as a result of one learning Torah not for its own sake, one eventually comes to learn it for its own sake.” Hagaon Rabbeinu Chaim Volozhiner explains (in his Sefer Nefesh Ha’Chaim) that this means that one may have thought that if one is not on the level of learning Torah for its own sake currently, one should not study Torah at all since one who studies Torah not for its own sake is punished for doing so. Nevertheless, it is because of this notion that our Sages taught (Avot, Chapter 1), “One who does not study [Torah] is liable for death.” This means that one who does not study Torah at all is liable for even greater punishment than one who studies Torah not for its own sake. Thus, one must learn Torah no matter what, even if it is not always for its own sake. Our Sages therefore promised that eventually, one’s Torah study would be for its own sake.
The Way to Climb Up to a Roof
The Nefesh Ha’Chaim (Gate 3, Chapter 3) adds that it is nearly impossible for one’s Torah study to be for the sake of Heaven immediately upon establishing set times for learning. Thus, since this is the natural progression of events in that one begins by studying Torah not for its own sake and eventually reaching a level of studying Torah for the sake of Heaven, one is already beloved to Hashem even in the beginning of one’s journey. Just as it is impossible to reach the roof of a house or building without climbing the steps of a ladder or stairwell, it is likewise impossible to reach the level of learning Torah for its own sake without transitioning through a period of studying Torah not for its own sake. It is for this reason that our Sages taught that one should “always” delve in Torah and Mitzvot, even not for its own sake, meaning that even if one feels that one cannot help but feeling some thoughts of honor and the like through one’s learning, one should nevertheless always delve in Torah and Mitzvot even not for the sake of Heaven so that one can fortify one’s self more and more in fulfillment of the Torah and Mitzvot and eventually reach the level of learning Torah for its own sake.
The Moments One Intends for Torah Study to be for the Sake of Heaven
The Nefesh Ha’Chaim adds further that undoubtably, even when one learns Torah not for its own sake, there will certainly be moments free of improper thoughts or intentions related to one’s fulfillment of Torah and Mitzvot. Thus, during those few moments when one’s intentions were proper and pure, one sanctifies all of the Torah and Mitzvot one has performed not for the sake of Heaven thus far.
The Beginning of One’s Judgment
Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l quotes a wonderful idea (in his Anaf Etz Avot, page 52 in the footnote) in the name of Hagaon Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim ben Jamil (grandfather of Rabbeinu Chaim Abulafia) in his Sefer Chaim Va’Chessed who quotes the words of the Rambam in Chapter 3 of Hilchot Talmud Torah: “The beginning of one’s judgment is regarding Torah study and only then regarding one’s other actions.” The Chaim Va’Chessed explains that indeed, one may engage in Torah and Mitzvot not for the sake of Heaven because of the importance and severity of Torah study, so much so that it is the first question one is asked when being judged by the Heavenly Tribunal. Thus, in order that the Jewish nation not slack off in their Torah study, our Sages taught that one must always study Torah no matter what, whether or not one is studying for the sake of Heaven. It is for this reason that the Rambam writes that “one should study Torah whether for its sake or not” as opposed to quoting the language of the Gemara that one should study Torah “even not for its own sake,” for the Rambam is teaching us that in any event, one should not delay or slack off in one’s Torah study as a result of this issue and must learn regardless, come what may. Eventually though, one will merit learning, teaching, and keeping the Torah and Mitzvot, all for sake of Heaven.