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The Power of Torah Lishmah     

“Whoever learns Torah lishmah, for its own sake, merits many things”



his book, Habitachon V’hademokratiyah (“Security and Democracy”), Isser Harel, the first director of the Mossad, shared an experience from his childhood that has since been repeated by several gedolei Torah all over the world, including Rav Sholom Schwadron ztz”l, the Maggid of Yerushalayim. (Harel’s last name was originally Halpern, and he was born into a chareidi family. Unfortunately, he did not maintain that lifestyle, and he ultimately became the hero of the Israeli intelligence community.)

Young Isser grew up in Dvinsk when the great Rav Meir Simcha, author of Ohr Sameiach and Meshech Chochmah, served as the rav of the city. The river that ran through the city was on the verge of overflowing its banks, frightening all of the inhabitants, who knew full well the potential danger it presented. They laid sandbags to try to hold back the floodwaters, but to no avail. Rav Meir Simcha was asked by the townsfolk to save the day. (According to one version of the story, even the gentile mayor implored him for help.)

He arose from his Gemara, approached the river, and declared, “River, river! I am the mara d’asra of this city, and I decree with the power of the Torah that you recede immediately!”

The water level returned to normal, causing a great kiddush Hashem among all the inhabitants of Dvinsk, Jew and gentile alike. Scoffers will either call it black magic or deny the story altogether. Others might deem it a litvishe mofes. However, we can turn to the writings of the Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh to understand exactly what was at work here.

After Klal Yisrael crossed the Yam Suf, the pasuk tells us that the water returned “l’eisano,” literally translated as “to its full strength.” Chazal, however, saw in the word l’eisano an allusion to the word l’tna’o, its condition, which contains the same letters. According to this interpretation, HaKadosh Baruch Hu made a condition with the water at Maaseh Bereishis that it would one day have to split on behalf of Klal Yisrael. Simply understood, this means that from the beginning of Creation, the Yam Suf was destined to split when we encountered it thousands of years later as we fled the Egyptians. This understanding is problematic for several reasons.

First, the Midrash tells us that when Moshe Rabbeinu approached the Yam Suf, it “refused” him. (This is a reference, of course, to the Sar shel Yam, as water doesn’t communicate.) The sea’s reasoning was that since it was created on Day Three of Maaseh Bereishis and mankind on Day Six, it was not justified for the great sea to split for the inferior man. However, if we are to understand the condition made at Creation, that one day in the future it would simply have to split, where was there room for debate or resistance?

The Ohr HaChaim asks a second, more general question regarding the episode of Kri’as Yam Suf. We find in the Gemara that Rav Pinchas ben Yair, on his way to rescue a prisoner, “threatened” a river that if it didn’t split for him to allow him across, he would turn it into dry land, wiping it completely out of existence. What, then, is the unique nature of Kri’as Yam Suf, and the sea’s argument with Moshe, if anybody can split rivers?

The Ohr HaChaim proceeds to answer these questions with a fundamental concept that we, as the recipients of the Torah, need to understand. The condition that was made at Maaseh Bereishis had nothing to do with Kri’as Yam Suf per se at all. It was a condition that Hashem made with all of Maaseh Bereishis; that it must take a back seat to those who are ameilim b’Torah, toiling in Torah study. Ameilim b’Torah, says the Ohr HaChaim, were given the same dominion over the world that the Creator Himself possessed.

This was how the Yam Suf was able to make its argument: The Torah had not even been given yet, so Moshe had no power to uproot its existence. Hashem responded that Moshe Rabbeinu was destined to receive the Torah, and was therefore indeed accorded the privileges of an ameil b’Torah. By the same token, because Rav Pinchas ben Yair was an ameil b’Torah, he, too, was able to force the river to part so he could continue his holy mission of pidyon shevuyim. In fact, continues the Ohr HaChaim, anyone who has acquired the status of ameil b’Torah can approach the created world with this “note” that entitles him to do as he pleases with the Bri’ah itself.

Such is the power of Torah and those who toil in it. No black magic, no mofes. It is simply the way of the world. This certainly gives us a greater understanding and appreciation of gedolei Torah when we hear of them working what seem to be magnificent miracles that challenge the very laws of nature; their ability is built into our own law of nature.

Perhaps this can provide us with a new understanding of Rashi on the pasukIm bechukosai teleichu — If you walk in my statutes.” Rashi explains these words to mean “she’tiheyu ameilim ba’Torah” — that you should toil in Torah. The word chok can be interpreted as the laws of nature, as in chok nasan v’lo yaavor — “He established an order that shall never change.” One who toils in Torah allows himself access to those chukim and can control them at his will.

Rav Meir Shapiro ztz”l shared a similar anecdote about the power of ameilim b’Torah, albeit from a little further back in history. The story that Rav Shapiro shared was actually recorded for posterity in the annals of Lublin, by the city’s own government historians.

The Maharshal, while serving as the rav in Lublin in the 1600s, had a disciple whose new wife had tragically passed away shortly after their wedding. Sometime later, the Maharshal noticed that his talmid was in a very depressed state, and he approached him to inquire about his well-being, or rather his lack thereof. The talmid unburdened himself, confiding to his great rebbi that he had made an oath to his wife shortly before her death that he would never remarry. He realized now what a foolish thing he had done, for he would have to spend the remainder of his life alone.

The Maharshal informed him that his oath was invalid because it contradicted the mitzvah of peru u’revu, a man’s obligation to marry and populate the world, and he was free to find another wife. Sure enough, the talmid listened to his rebbi and remarried.

Shockingly, shortly after his wedding, the young man himself suddenly passed away. Lublin was abuzz — people began to question the Maharshal’s psak allowing the second marriage, causing an uproar in town. The Maharshal, fully aware of what was going on, instructed the chevra kaddisha to send a representative to his home before the burial for some special instructions. As the time for the kevurah arrived, someone appeared at the Rav’s home awaiting his orders.

The Maharshal gave the man a piece of paper that said, “Shalom, Shalom to you, pamalia shel maaleh. I paskened based on the Torah that my disciple is permitted and obligated to marry. I decree with the power of Torah that you return him to me!”

The Maharshal proceeded to sign his name and instructed that the paper be placed in the grave alongside the niftar, that the grave remain open, and that everyone leave the cemetery. Shortly after the burial, the niftar appeared at his home, dressed in his tachrichin, acting as if nothing special had taken place. His wife had quite the shock as she ran off to her parents’ house in a state of fright and confusion.

In the morning, the Maharshal instructed his talmid to dress in regular clothing and take his regular seat in the beis medrash. Needless to say, his old friends were hesitant to keep company with him. This prompted the Maharshal to once again declare, through the power of Torah, that the Heavenly “minister of forgetfulness” should take control of Lublin and obliterate the incident from everyone’s collective memory. The young man returned to a normal life and indeed raised an upstanding family.

(How this story eventually became known is a mystery, but if Rav Meir Shapiro felt it authentic enough to share publicly, we can assume he was convinced of its veracity.)

When the Ohr HaChaim wrote that any ameil b’Torah can present his “note,” this was apparently one great example. But there is a critical point to bear in mind, a crucial element in the lofty pursuit of Torah study.

For although we see the incredible power of Torah at work, we must be reminded of the mishnah in Pirkei Avos, “Whoever learns Torah lishmah, for its own sake, merits many things.” The mishnah does not reveal what these “many things” are, and simply continues by giving an additional list of the good fortunes that await one who learns Torah lishmah. Apparently the devarim harbeh (many things) mentioned at the outset are something other than the good fortunes enumerated later.

The Ponevezher Rav is quoted as having said that if one ever met the Chazon Ish, he would understand what the mishnah meant. The “devarim harbeh” are intangibles that cannot be described. It is important to note that Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh HaChaim, Sha’ar 4, chapter 2) explains that Torah lishmah means “for the sake of knowing the Torah,” period. No extras, no goodies, and no super powers either — just simply to know the word and will of Hashem. Such a person will merit those special gifts.

Perhaps this can help us understand a well-known but baffling anecdote recorded in the Yerushalmi and quoted by Tosafos in Maseches Chagigah (15a). Chazal related the circumstances surrounding the tragic personality of Elisha ben Avuyah, known as Acheir. He was the rebbi of the Tanna Rabi Meir, but left the life of Torah, even being mechallel Shabbos and Yom Kippur.

Avuyah, Acheir’s father, was considered one of the gedolei Yerushalayim and invited his colleagues to his son’s bris. Rabi Elazar and Rabi Yehoshua were discussing Torah topics in depth, when suddenly the house was surrounded by fire. (There are a number of other instances recorded in Shas and Midrash Shir Hashirim [1:10] of great people producing this fire of Torah as well.)

Avuyah asked them if they were coming to burn his house down, to which they responded they were so engrossed in learning that they were recreating the experience of Maamad Har Sinai, which was accompanied by fire. Profoundly shaken, Avuyah exclaimed that he never realized the power of Torah until that moment.

“If my son shows signs of success,” said Avuyah, “I will dedicate my life to ensuring that he becomes great in Torah.”

The Yerushalmi concludes that since Avuyah’s intentions were not l’Sheim Shamayim, for he wanted his son to learn for the sake of being able to create that same holy fire, he planted seeds in his son’s neshamah that eventually influenced him to stumble and ultimately veer entirely off course.

This Yerushalmi begs for an explanation. What exactly did Avuyah do wrong? Torah is fire — ko somar devarai k’eish — and he wanted his son to have the kind of fiery Torah and fire that he had just witnessed. What is so terrible about that? Why was this aspiration considered such an egregious act of wrongdoing that it propelled his son off the dais of the greatest gedolei Torah?

Based on what we learned above, perhaps we can open up a small window to understand this. Avuyah declared that he did not know kochah shel Torah (as per the lashon of the Yerushalmi) until witnessing the fire surrounding his house. He had just seen something awesome. Here were two mortal beings, showing such control over Maaseh Bereishis that they were able to produce an actual fire simply by learning Torah. Avuyah wanted his son to have that ability as well. Who wouldn’t?

The fault Chazal found in him was that no such intentions can underlie learning Torah for its own sake, lishmah. Torah is neither a weapon or a laser beam; it is the word of Hashem and must be learned with only one goal in mind, to master it through and through. Although learning Torah with ameilus can indeed influence and change the actual Bri’ah, this is not why we learn it. Someone who is described by Chazal as one of the gedolei Yerushalayim should have known better. His misguided intentions were enough to plants seeds that, if improperly nurtured, could blossom into a son like Acheir.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh HaChaim, Sha’ar 4, chapter 2) learned from this Yerushalmi that every single person is capable of re-experiencing Maamad Har Sinai by learning Torah. We may not see the fire, but we can rest assured knowing that our neshamos are being warmed by its heat and being enlightened by its glow.

Even if we have not reached that heightened level at which we can alter nature with our koach haTorah, that does not mean we are denied the ability to effect actual physical benefit through our study of Torah.

I personally heard the following idea emphasized many times by the Ponevezher Mashgiach, Rav Chaim Friedlander ztz”l. The pasuk in parshas Ha’azinu (32:18) says, “Tzur yeladcha teshi” — translated literally, “you forgot the Rock Who birthed you.” Rashi, however, quotes Chazal’s homiletic interpretation, which is “tosh kocho shel maalah — weakens the strength of ‘Above.’ ” How does one “weaken the strength of Above”?

This is meant to represent the idea that although Hashem wishes to bestow good upon us, it is up to us to determine if we deserve it. If our actions disqualify us from being recipients of His goodness, we anger Him and “weaken His strength” to be able to do good for us. It is our actions that give Hashem the ability, kiveyachol, to be meitiv us. (In Nefesh Hachaim, Sha’ar 4, Rav Chaim Volozhiner develops this concept at length.) If we do the kinds of things that upset Him, His hands are tied, so to speak, from showering us with the bounty of good. It stands to reason, then, that when we are on our best behavior, it allows all the shefa tov to come down.

As we ready ourselves to celebrate zeman Matan Toraseinu, we can all commit to either learning Torah b’ameilus, supporting it by encouraging our bnei bayis to do so, facilitating it through acts of tzedakah, or simply appreciating what all the ameilus is really accomplishing for us.

We have never felt the need for the Torah’s protection in recent times as much as we need it today. May the day soon come soon when Hashem’s dominion over the world will be revealed to everyone once again as it was at Har Sinai. Through our humble efforts, im yirtzeh Hashem it will.


Rabbi Plotnik, a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponevezh, has been active in rabbanus and chinuch for 25 years and currently serves as ram in Yeshivas Me’or HaTorah in Chicago.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1014)

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