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Motivation to Learn

Rabbi Ishmael his son said: He who learns in order to teach, it is granted to him to study and to teach; And he who learns in order to practice, it is granted to him to learn and to teach and to preserve and to practice. 


Rabbi Zadok said: do not make them a crown for self-exaltation, nor a spade with which to dig. So too Hillel used to say, “And he that puts the crown to his own use shall perish.” Thus you have learned, anyone who derives worldly benefit from the words of the Torah, removes his life from the world.


This Mishna contains statements by two different rabbis related to motivations for learning Torah. The first, by Rabbi Ishmael, focuses on positive motivations. The second, by Rabbi Zadok, reflects on the negative. 


Rabbi Ishmael values both learning in order to teach, as well as learning in order to practice. These positive motivations build momentum and increase success. Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka nicely encapsulates this expansive mindset, writing that “limited horizons bring limited fulfilment, while grand visions are somewhat akin to self-fulfilling dreams. They create a momentum of their own which brings the desired results.” This is why someone who learns in order to teach succeeds at studying and teaching, and why someone who learns in order to perform is granted learning, teaching, and practice.  


Regarding learning to teach, Rabbi Ishmael intimates that teaching helps with the teacher’s own learning process. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that someone who studies for the purpose of passing on the information through instruction is “compelled to delve even more thoroughly into the material to be learned, and to seek greater clarity of thought than he might otherwise have sought.” 


In the educational psychology literature this notion is known as the protégé effect. As described by John Bargh and Yaacov Schul in their pioneering 1980 article “On the Cognitive Benefits of Teaching,” when someone learns with intent to teach, they learn better. When they prepare, they think more deeply about the organizing structure of the ideas. Additionally, the verbal delivery of content helps memory. They are forced to clarify and think through things from new perspectives to help convey the information in different, more effective ways. 


Concerning learning in order to practice, the primary message is that learning must not be divorced from action. The performance of mitzvot is primary. Moreover, it is through the action that learning is enhanced. As elaborated on in the Psyched for Avot essay on “Wisdom and Character,” by making content practice-oriented the concepts become better internalized. 


Moving from the positive motivation to the negative, Abarbanel infers that if someone learns just because it is enjoyable, his or her motivation is lacking. Maharal makes the same critique about someone who learns just to amass knowledge. While both these approaches may contrast with other conceptualizations of proper motivations to learn (see Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Torah Lishma), the latter part of the Mishna clearly denigrates learning for the sake of self-exaltation or for gaining personal benefit. 


Learning to obtain honor or power is especially problematic. Learning to make money would likewise be discouraged. Commenting on this Mishnah, Maimonides—knowing that his “words will not please most of the great Torah sages, and perhaps any of them”—criticizes all those who take money for learning or teaching Torah. This stance had political ramifications for Maimonides, when he sided with a judge, Perahia ben Joseph, who refused to collect a tax from anyone seeking a halakhic ruling, even though the ra’is al-yahud, the political leader of the Jewish community, Sar Shalom Abu Zikri, ordered him to do so (Responsa 270; see Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides: Life and Thought, p. 43-44). 


Later commentaries, such as Rabbi Simeon ben Zemah Duran, defend the custom to receive money for learning or teaching based both on other Talmudic precedents, as well as on the reality that without such systems, the maintenance and spread of Torah ideas and ideals would be threatened.


Regardless of which side of this debate one finds themself, everyone would agree that Rabbi Zadok would encourage learning without the expressed motivation of receiving money or personal benefit.  Learning should be done for the proper sake, which could include, according to this Mishna, in order to teach and in order to perform. This ideal, writes Rabbi Marc Angel, “is realized by one who views Torah study as a calling. One is imbued not only with a desire to learn and to teach Torah, but to live one’s life in a manner that overflows with love of Torah.”


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