> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

Pure Beginnings

Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah Portion begins with God's instructions to Moses with regard to the people who would make the vestments that Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), would wear during his service. "And you shall speak to all the wise-hearted people whom I have invested with a spirit of wisdom, and they shall make the vestments of Aaron, to sanctify him to minister to me." (1) It is evident from this instruction that it was of the utmost importance that the people making Aaron's clothing be on a high spiritual level. The Netsiv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, discusses why this was so significant; he introduces a principle that the intentions (kavannot) that are present at the beginning of any spiritual endeavor will have a long-lasting influence on the spiritual capacity of that endeavor. In this vein, he explains that the kavannot with which the clothing was made would have a permanent effect on the holiness inherent in it. This would in turn enable Aaron to utilize the maximum possible holiness inherent in the clothing, during his Holy service in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

The Netsiv in another place in his commentary on the Torah,(2) elaborates on this principle in explanation of a fascinating Gemara.(3) Two great Tanaic sages, Rebbe Chanina and Rebbe Chiya were arguing in Torah. They then proceeded to point out their respective merits.(4) Rebbe Chanina pointed out that if the Torah would be forgotten, he would be able to retrieve it through his great deductive abilities. Rebbe Chiya replied that he had already ensured that Torah would not be forgotten. He proceeded to explain how he went through a lengthy and difficult process; it began by creating nets for trapping animals. He would then use those nets to trap deer. He would slaughter the deer and give its meat to orphans. He would use the skin as parchment for scrolls; he would write each of the five books of the Torah on one scroll each, and teach five children one scroll each. He would then do the same with the six orders of the Mishna. He would then have each child teach the others the section that they had learnt. In this way, he ensured that it was impossible that Torah be forgotten. The section ends with Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi's praise of Rebbe Chiya - 'how great are the deeds of Rebbe Chiya'!

The Netsiv asks why it was necessary for Rebbe Chiya to go through so much effort in order to make the scrolls upon which the Torah and Mishna would be written? Why could he not have simply bought the parchment from a merchant and then written on that? He explains with the principle that we mentioned above - that the intentions present at the beginning of a spiritual undertaking have a great effect on the future ability of that undertaking to succeed. Rebbe Chiya desired that the scrolls would be created with the purest of intentions - in this way they could have a greater effect in entering into the hearts of the children who would learn from them.(5) This is a further example of how the intentions that a person has at the very beginning of his endeavor have a great effect on its future success.

We see another example of this principle, but this time, in the negative sense, where impure intentions have a detrimental effect. The Gemara in Chagiga discusses the sad story of a great sage by the name of Elisha Ben Avuyah who became a heretic.(6) The Gemara tells us of reasons as to why he finally abandoned Torah. Tosefot on that Gemara brings the Jerusalem Talmud that informs us that the defining event in Elisha's abandonment of Torah actually took place when he was a baby. It describes the festive meal in celebration of the bris mila of the young Elisha. His father, Avuyah, invited all the greatest Sages of the time to the meal. During the meal, two of the sages were in another room learning Torah on a very high level. Their learning was so great that a fire came down from Heaven and surrounded them. Avuyah entered into the room and saw that his house was on fire. He expressed his concern that his house would burn down, but they explained that there was no danger. Their learning was on such a level that it was comparable to the day that the Torah was given on Sinai when fire came down from Heaven. Avuyah was so impressed by the power of Torah that he said that if the power of Torah was so great then he would strive to dedicate his son to the learning of Torah. The Talmud explains that since Avuyah's intentions for his son were not purely lishma (for the sake of Heaven), his son eventually left the Torah path.(7) We see from here that just as pure intentions facilitate future holiness, so too impure intentions can result in subsequent impurity.

We have seen the importance of the purity of intentions at the beginning of spiritual endeavors. However, there is another important Torah principle that brings into question the above idea, in particular the account of the negative impact of Avuyah's intentions for his son: The Gemara in a number of places, tells us; "one should always toil in Torah and Mitzvot, even loh lishma (not for the sake of Heaven), because from the loh lishma (8) will come the lishma." (9) This means that even if a person is not at the level of performing mitzvot and learning Torah purely lishma, nonetheless, he should continue in his performance of the mitzvot with impure intentions. And as a result of doing the mitzvot for the wrong reasons, he will inevitably come to do the mitzvot for the right reasons. If this is the case, then why did the impure intentions of Avuyah have such a detrimental effect on the future of his son?

It seems that the key to answer this question is found in the words of Rav Chaim Volozhin in his commentary to Pirkei Avot: He argues that there is a very important limitation to the Gemara's assertion of the inevitability that Avodat HaShem that is not for the sake of Heaven will lead to lishma performance. He stipulates that this is only the case if the person who performs the mitzvot not for the sake of Heaven, also has the active intentions that he will eventually come to do the mitzvot lishma. This means that even though he recognizes that he is currently at the level where his Avodat HaShem is not totally pure, he realizes intellectually that the ultimate goal is to serve God lishma. As Rabbi Akiva Tatz expresses it, the person 'wants to want to do the mitzvah for the right reasons'. In this way, his impure Avodat HaShem is acceptable in that it will surely bring him to pure service at a later date. However, if he does the mitzvot not for the sake of Heaven, with no future goal of being lishma then there is no inevitability at all that he will ever come to perform mitzvot lishma. Based on Rav Chaim of Volozhin's explanation, we can now understand why Avuyah's intentions had such damaging consequences.(10) It seems clear from the Yerushalmi that Avuyah's intentions were totally not for the sake of Heaven, without any hope of attaining the level of lishma in the future.(11)

We have seen how powerful the intentions that are present at the beginning of spiritual endeavors (which include marriage, having children, starting learning, and many other undertakings) are in determining the future outcome of those endeavors. Therefore, it is very important that a person strive to have the purest possible intentions. However, it is clear that attaining such high levels of purity is very difficult and takes a great deal of time and effort. Rav Chaim Volozhin teaches us that even if we are not yet on the level of lishma we can realistically strive to have the attitude that we want to get to lishma - in this way we can inject our actions with a significant level of purity.

Moreover, it is important to note that even if a person has already began his endeavor without the highest levels of purity, he can always achieve a 'new start' through the miraculous process of teshuva (repentance).(12) Accordingly, a person who, for example, is already married or already has children can restart the process through teshuva and thereby create a greater capacity for future holiness. May we all merit to have pure intentions in everything that we do.


1. Emek Davar, Shemos, 28:3.

2. Emek Davar, Shemos, 19:2.

3. Bava Metsia, 85b.

4. Superficially, it would seem that their conduct seems a little haughty, however, it is obvious that there was no trace of arrogance in their arguments. See Ben Yehoyada, Bava Metsia, 85b, who explains the underlying issue that they were debating.

5. Emek Davar. Shemos, 19:2. Also see Maharsha, Chiddushie Aggados, Bava Metsia, 85b for a similar explanation.

6. Chagiga, 15a. After he became a heretic he became known by the name, 'Acher', meaning that he because another person.

7. Tosefos, Chagiga, 15a, dh: Shuvu banim shovevim. See Sichos Mussar, Maamer 9, Parshas Vayeira, for more discussion about this Yerushalmi about Acher.

8. Examples of loh lishma are learning for the sake of receiving honor or for gaining material benefit. The commentaries point out that there are certain kinds of loh lishma that are so impure that this principle does not apply to them. An example of this is one who learns in order to know Torah laws so that he can use his knowledge to take advantage of other people.

9. Pesachim, 50b, Nazir, 23b, Horayos, 10b, Sotah, 22b.

10. Ruach Chaim, Avos, 1:13. This explanation also explains why so many people seem to perform Mitzvos loh lishma and yet never attain the level of lishma. It should be noted, however, that even if a person feels he is totally loh lishma, he nonetheless must continue in his efforts to observe all Mitzvos and learn Torah. Rav Chaim Volozhin himself stressed this in his classic work, Nefesh HaChaim.

11. It should be noted that there is a strong difficulty with the principle of Rav Chaim that loh lishma only leads to lishma if the person intends that he should get to lishma at some future point. Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuos, Maamer 6, os 4) asks that the source for the principle of loh lishma leading to lishma is Balak - he offered up 42 sacrifices to HaShem in his efforts to harm the Jewish people. As a result of these sacrifices (despite the obviously impure intentions that motivated them!), he merited to have a descendant who was lishma - Ruth (Nazir, 23b). Rav Hutner points out that Balak clearly had no intention of ever getting to lishma. Accordingly, if this is the source of the whole concept of loh lishma leading to lishma, how could Rav Chaim say that the concept only applies if one plans to get to true lishma - the whole source of the concept is from Balak! Any approaches to this question are greatly appreciated.

12. The above quoted Netsiv in Shemos, 19:2 alludes to this point.



Leave a Reply

1 2 3 2,899

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram