Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
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To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

29. Abstinence Leads to Purity

Pious abstinence leads to purity. And what is purity? It is the perfection of the heart and the thoughts so that all a person's actions are carried out with wisdom and fear of God, as King David says, “Create in me, God, a pure heart” (Psalms 51:12).


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Pious abstinence leads to purity. And what is purity? Purity is the perfection of the heart and the thoughts, as King David says in the Book of Psalms, "Create in me, God, a pure heart" (51:12). After a person teaches himself to resist overindulgence in worldly pleasures and to make do with necessities alone, it is still necessary to purify one's heart and direct one's thoughts so that all of his actions are carried out with wisdom and fear of God.

This idea is reflected in the words of King Solomon, "In all of your ways know Him, and He will straighten your path." "In all of your ways" - everything you do should be done with an awareness of God. This same idea is expressed by the sages of the Mishnah: "All of your deeds should be carried out for the sake of Heaven." Even those actions necessary to sustain the body should be carried out with the proper intention, with a pure heart and free of base appetites.

However, just as there must be purity of thought regarding physical conduct, which is inherently close to the evil inclination, so too must there be purity of thought regarding the sort of good deeds which draw a person close to God. Such purity of though is necessary if one wants his good deeds to be carried out for the sake of Heaven, free of evil inclinations.

When it comes to intention which is "not for the sake of Heaven," there are a number of levels. Some learn Torah in order to boast, or in order to accuse and criticize others. This is the worst kind of intention. In this regard the sages say that whoever studies Torah with selfish motives "had been better off unborn," and "it were better had he been smothered in his placenta." Such a person's reason for studying Torah runs counter to the Torah's purpose. The Torah calls upon a person to be humble, but this individual studies in order to boast and show others how knowledgeable he is, or in oder to insult others and besmirch the Torah itself. The sages say that such a person "had been better off unborn."

And then there is a type of "not for the sake of Heaven" which while not so negative as boasting or insulting others is still undesirable. Some study Torah with the sole intention of making a living from it, and regarding such people the sages say, "One who makes use of the crown, disappears." A person who uses the crown of the Torah for his personal needs deserves to disappear from the world. While such a person does not intend to disparage the Torah or to act in a negative manner, he uses the Torah with ulterior motives, and this has grave consequences.

And there is one more type of "not for the sake of Heaven" - studying Torah in order to be rewarded by God. However, while such study contains an ulterior motive, the sages say, "A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvot (commandments), even if not for the sake of the mitzvah itself, for doing so will lead one to serve for the sake of the mitzvah itself" (Pesachim 50b). All the same, such a person is still far from perfection.

Sometimes a person performs a commandment with the pure intention of fulfilling God's will. However, he may at the same time harbor undesirable thoughts; he also acts this way in order that those who see him will praise him. Sometimes his intentions are completely pure, but when he receives praise for his behavior he exerts himself even more in performing the commandment. This too is an influencing factor, and even though it is not his principal intention, his heart is not completely pure. While there is great value even in actions that contain some undesirable intention, the goal of those who truly with to serve God should be to achieve completely pure service, with no ulterior motive whatsoever.

Some of the material in the above article was taken from or based upon "The Path of the Just" (Feldheim), a translation of Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto's "Mesillat Yesharim."

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