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When you work towards a learning goal, are you motivated for better grades, looking smarter, outperforming others? Or do you learn for the sake of understanding the material, improving your knowledge, and becoming competent in the task at hand? The former motivational type is referred to by psychologists as achievement motivation, the latter, as mastery motivation. Learning tends to be more productive and psychologically healthier when done for mastery purposes, not achievement purposes. Mastery is more intrinsically motivating and overlaps more with having a growth mindset.

In this Mishna, Hillel, using very strong—perhaps hyperbolic—language, adjures all of us to avoid learning or acting for extrinsic, achievement-based motivations. By deduction, we are also encouraged to approach learning with an intrinsic, mastery-based orientation.

He [Hillel] used to say: one who makes his name great causes his name to be destroyed; one who does not add [to his knowledge] causes [it] to cease; one who does not study [the Torah] deserves death; one who makes [unworthy] use of the crown [of learning] shall pass away.

In the first and last clauses, he cautions about bad motivation: “one who makes his name great causes his name to be destroyed” and “one who makes [unworthy] use of the crown [of learning] shall pass away.” The commentaries extract various cautionary messages from these words. If we are motivated to act out of arrogance (Rabbeinu Ephraim), for the sake of power or dominance (Maharal), or looking for popularity (Ruach Chaim), we are bound to fail. In all likelihood, this result will come about through natural consequences. As Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka points out, “If the person approaches the educational process with the view to gaining status or power, such lust is likely to be obvious to students and teachers, and will stand in the way of gaining recognition.” Rather than these destructive motivations, we should participate in beneficial activities because we know they are the right things to do (Pirkei Moshe).

In the second clause, Hillel tells us that “one who does not add [to his knowledge] causes [it] to cease.” We can never be done learning and growing. Again, in the eloquent words of Rabbi Dr. Bulka:

The human being is involved in a never-ending becoming process. The fulfillment of today is no excuse to relax; it is an inspiration to greater fulfilment tomorrow. The missed opportunity to improve can never be retrieved, for the time which passes is not open to recall. Standing still, not increasing knowledge, is thus a regression, for it kills the present potential. In human striving, there is no neutral gear. It is either forward of reverse.

Besides the basic necessity to keep learning new things, this message is also read as encouraging review of previously learned materials (Machzor Vitri), emphasizing critical thinking to help reinforce memory (Ri ben Shoshan), and requiring us to add to our learning by teaching others (Magen Avot). Dr. Binyamin Ziv adds a modern psychological reading by noting that if we stop learning as we get older, that could lead to quicker brain deterioration and the potential for various neurodegenerative diseases.

Finally, the third clause, “one who does not study [the Torah] deserves death,” emphasizes the importance of learning Torah to help fill our lives with meaning. Study is so consequential that it is viewed in terms of life and death. Consistent and constant learning adds value and fulfillment to our lives. The ideas culled from our holy texts infuse our lives with direction and purpose. To abnegate such a vital and indispensable obligation and privilege, Hillel forewarns us, can have catastrophic consequences.

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