“Whoever studies the Torah for its own sake [l’shmah] merits many things…[among other things] it gives the individual sovereignty and dominion and the ability to judge.” – Pirke Avot 6.1
By an interesting coincidence, it was on this week of Shabbat Shoftim (“judges”) that our weekly Talmud study class contemplated this teaching. At first glance we are, perhaps, not sure what to do with it. Sovereignty and dominion? Surely Rabbi Meir, the Talmudic sage to whom this saying is attributed, didn’t mean that those of us who study Torah will all become queens and kings.
Jews who study are best served by remembering the four levels of interpretation we bring to bear on any given verse, teaching, or story: Peshat, Drash, Remez, and Sod, known by their acronym (slightly out of order): PaRDeS, or “orchard.” Applied to the opening verse of our parashat hashavua, our parashah of the week, we can begin to see what “sovereignty and dominion and the ability to judge” one might gain through the study of Torah.
You shall set judges and officers in all your cities (Devarim 16.18)
* peshat, the simple, surface layer of meaning: Jewish ethics both ancient and modern require courts so that justice may be upheld in society.
* drash, the “midrash” layer of thinking more deeply about meaning: notice that this is said in the plural: one must not judge alone. (Pirke Avot 4.8)
* remez, the “hinted” meaning: “The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth.
It is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out,
and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions . . .” (Siftei Kohen)
* sod, or, the “secret” meaning: we cannot know this meaning easily or right away, if at all, or ever. It may remain secret from us, a useful reminder of the limits
of our understanding.
Now what can we do with “the one who studies Torah for its own sake will merit….sovereignty, dominion, and the ability to judge.”?
* peshat: immersing oneself in Torah creates a rich inner world for oneself, even as children create such meaningful worlds of play for themselves, in which they are fully in control.
* drash: the mystics teach that focusing upon the mitzvot (the heart of Torah and our relationship with it) allows us to become sovereign over our own impulses and desires.
* remez: when one studies Torah l’shmah, “for its own sake,” one will come to understand something about judgment.
This hint is especially important for us, who spend much of our time in ill-considered or uninformed, emotional judgment of others. Whether we read it or hear it, our yetzer hara’, our evil inclination, races to believe the worst of others. To study, or in the Hebrew verb to hear, l’shmah, means without emotion and without any motive other than to learn, with openness to learning and to having our convictions sometimes upset and overturned.
For example, have you heard something about someone else and assumed a position of judgment about that person, a position you defend against new evidence, as a result? If you judged based on one hearing, you have violated the drash level of this mitzvah. No one of us can judge alone.
As for the sod level of this mitzvah, the mitzvah of setting up justice in our gates to be judged and carried out, we may not discern it yet, but looking all around us, we see indications of the horrors that we court when we do not take care with this mitzvah. We may not have complete sovereignty or dominion, yet to the extent that we have some capacity, may our judgments of each other be l’shmah, that we might contribute to that ethic in the communities we influence by our every act.