Tools and Goals

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by Micha Berger

The chorus of a song we used to sing in my day, decades ago, in NCSY began:

Torah and mitzvos, these are our goals
Serving Hashem to strengthen our souls…

If we truly thought Torah and mitzvos are our goals, then we wouldn’t be looking beyond them to suggest we “serv[e] Hashem to…” something.[1. I don’t intend to critique a song written for a teens to sing at Shabbatonim by nit-picking over details of word choices as though I thought the song was intended to be a philosophical treatise. I do realize the primary goal was rhyming scheme and singability, not precision. I am just using these lines illustratively.] The lyrics initially sound true in an obvious way, but actually each line describes a slightly different worldview, and the clash between them raises fundamental questions about how we should be viewing our life work:

Is observance the ends, the purpose, of our lives, or is it the means and the goal lies beyond it? And if they are the means, do we need to consciously frame the purpose of our lives, or should we just concern ourselves with following the halakhah, and rest assured that the goal will take care of itself?


Chazal already discussed our problem. The Talmud already tells us that embracing the Torah alone is not sufficient for it to serve as a “sam hachaim” — a medicine for life:

R. Chananel bar Papa said: What is meant by, “Hear, for I will speak princely things,” (Mishlei 8:6)? Why are the words of the Torah compared to a prince? To tell you: just as a prince has power of life and death, so too the words of the Torah [have potential for] life or death. As Rava said: to those who go to the right side of it, it is a a sam hachaim, a medicine for life; to those who go to its left, it is a sam hamaves, an elixir of death. (Shabbos 88b)

Rabbi Chananel bar Papa acknowledges that there are ways the Torah can be used constructively, and ways it can be abused. Rava here answers that there is a “right side” and a “left side”, and one can take the Torah’s words in either direction. Following halakhah alone is insufficient to the health of one’s soul, and in fact the word’s of Torah can be abused to harm it. A second Gemara gives us a little more detail into Rava’s position:

R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is meant by, “And this is the Torah which Moses placed [before the Benei Yisrael].” (Devarim 4:44) If one merits, it becomes for him a sam hachaim; if one does not merit, it becomes for him a sam hamaves. And this idea is what Rava said: If you work with it, it is for him a sam hachaim; if you do not work with it, it is for him a sam hamaves. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachameini said: Rabbi Yonasan found an implication [of the verses]. It says, “The appointments of G-d are straight, they gladden the heart,” (Tehillim 19:9) and it says, “The word of G-d is trying,” (Tehillim 18:31). If one merits, it makes him happy; if one does not merit, he is tried. Reish Lakish said: From the essence of the [second] verse we learn this — if he is worthy, he is tried for [and found deserving of] life; if he is not worthy, he is tried for death. (Yoma 72b)

Here we again see Rava explaining the notion that Torah can be a medicine or a poison, but instead of speaking of “going to the right” he speaks in terms of working with the Torah.

The other element in this Gemara is worthiness, a meritorious person doesn’t “merely” follow the halakhah, he works with the Torah to make himself of worth. This is also the theme of the famous Ramban on parashas Kedoshim. When the Torah states “Kedoshim tihyu ki Kadosh Ani — Be kadosh [holy, sacred] for I Am Kadosh.” (Vayikra 19:2) The Sifra (a/k/a Toras Kohanim), comments writes “‘kedoshim tihyu’: perushim tihyu — ‘be holy’: you shall be separated”. The Ramban (ad loc) explains the medrash as saying “make yourself kadosh with that which is permitted to you” by refraining from the permitted. Someone who does not can be a “naval birshus haTorah — a disgusting [person] with the permission of the Torah”. By “permission”, we mean the permission of specific halakhos; what we’re discussing is itself the Torah telling us that its call to pursue a higher calling rules out becoming a debauch glutton who follows the laws of taharas hamishpachah and kashrus.

The Vilna Gaon, as quoted in Even Sheleimah (1:11), also warns that following halakhah and studying Torah are not a complete definition of following the Word of G-d. He writes that the relationship of the Torah to the soul is described by “a comparison to rain for the ground; it causes what was planted there to grow, whether a sam hachaim or a sam hamaves, a poison. Similarly, Torah causes what is in his heart to grow. If what is in his heart is good, his yirah will grow; if what is in his heart is a ‘root sprouting poison weed and wormwood’ then the bitterness that is in his head will grow.” The Vilna Gaon bases himself on our Gemara, and then concludes pragmatically, “Therefore, one must cleanse one’s heart every day, before study and after it, of impure attitudes and middos, with a fear of sin and with good deeds….” If you start with desirable plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants. But if you water weeds, you will only produce more weeds. Learning Torah without attention to character refinement will simply produce more forceful personalities with bad middos.

The Vilna Gaon defines the goal beyond observance in terms of middos, but I do not wish to raise the question of how each of us would actually frame the goal for ourselves. This is a question that would be more amenable to a survey rather than a single “right answer” — the variety of possible approaches is one of the key elements that divide the various Orthodox movements. This is why Chazal speak of “shiv’im panim laTorah – the seventy facets of the Torah.” Shelomo advises us in Mishlei (22:6) “חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה — educate the child according to His way, [so that] when he also grows old he will not veer from it.” Each person must find their own facet, their own path.

Still, we do see that the Vilna Gaon does not believe it’s enough to study Torah and do mitzvos, to succeed in our mission in life we must pay attention to what we are doing these things for.


The Vilna Gaon’s understanding of Torah as a means to make something else grow brings to mind the introduction of the Ketzos haChoshen. The Ketzos bases his thought on a midrash (Bereishis Rabba 8:5) that describes the debate in heaven that occurred when Hashem was about to make Adam. Some were in favor of the idea, others agains. It applies the verse in Tehillim (85:11), “חֶֽסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ, צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָֽׁקוּ – Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace kissed each other.” The principle of Love saw our ability to act lovingly, and voted for. Truth was against, since man lies so frequently. Righteousness also saw our potential, and supported Adam’s creation. Peace was against, as a human being is full of strife. Hashem took Truth and through it down to the ground. This is why the quote from Tehillim continues (v. 12), “אֱמֶת מֵאֶרֶץ תִּצְמָח – Let truth bloom up from the earth.” Man was created with Hashem’s knowledge that with the existence of free-willed beings, Truth would be submerged and have to emerge over time through the process we call history. And only then would we have both Truth and Peace.

The Ketzos notes that here truth is described as tatzmiach, blooming. When we make the berakhah after an aliyah, we say “vechayei olam nata besocheinu — eternal life [or perhaps: life of the world{-to-come}] was planted within us.” The Ketzos explains: Torah is the seed from which our midrash tells us Truth blooms.

Notice the subtle but very important difference between the Vilna Gaon’s metaphor and the Ketzos’s. In Even Sheleimah, the Vilna Gaon portrays Torah as water, which enables whatever one has in one’s soul to grow. Torah could thus yield positive effects, or if one hadn’t first tended one’s soul, it could yield spiritual “weeds”.

According to the Ketzos, Torah is not likened to the water, but the seed. Implied in this introduction is an assumption that Torah is part of a process that will inevitably make Truth manifest in this world, it is inherently constructive. In both cases the Torah is the means and not the ends; but one makes the outcome dependent on how we use Torah, and the other does not.

While we saw the Vilna Gaon’s ideas present in the Gemara, Chazal make statements to indicate the Ketzos’s idea as well. For example, we are told that even if one were acting out of insufficient motivation or ulterior motive, Torah study or performance of a mitzvah is still of value, “shemitokh shelo lishmah, ba lishmah — from within [doing a mitzvah] not for its own sake, one comes to do it for its own sake.” (Pesachim 50b, Sanhedrin 105b, Nazir 23a)

The connection between action and emotion is cyclic. Usually we think of actions as expressions of emotion, but it is equally true that action causes and reinforces emotion. As the Chinukh puts it, “ha’adam nifal lefi pe’ulaso,” — a person is made according to his deeds (mitzvah #99, c.f. #16, #40, #41, #96, #264, #299, #324). And so the performance of mitzvos and following the Torah can initiate a positive feedback cycle that leads to redemption.

This isn’t a millennium-long dispute, but rather discussions of two different situations. Hillel warns in Avos 1:13, “one who advances his name loses his name”. Rav Chaim Volozhiner comments (Ruach Chaim, ad loc) that Hillel refers to someone who constantly learns Torah shelo lishmah, for the sake of advancing his reputation and fame. Such study backfires, and such a person would lose even the reputation he began with. The Gemara’s assurance that someone who acts for ulterior motive will come to act lishmah is only the person who is trying to ascend, but needs other motivations to actually carry through on that aspiration. “A person cannot put his foot on the next rung up without taking it off the rung below.”

And so, in the hands of Rav Chaim Volozhiner the concept that the Torah will help one, as a positive spiral of action reinforcing intent which in turn reinforces action, is really limited to the situation Rav Pava called “going to the right” or “working with the Torah”. The Torah is a tool, but without a conscious effort beyond obeying the mitzvos to work with that tool to fully to serve Hashem, we will not get the intended benefit from it. Thus, observance alone is not enough. As this Gemara implies, the problem is not simply that we are performing “מִצְוַת אֲנָשִׁים מְלֻמָּדָה – the commandments of men who learned by rote” (Yeshaiah 29:13), without the necessary passion or intention. Thus, a community that follows the Torah, even from habit without depth of feeling, should still gradually develop people who do so lishmah, eventually making their tzelem Elokim, their image of G-d, manifest. What Rava describes here is not a lack of zeal or passion when lifting the tool of Torah, but an entire failure to use Torah for the task for which it was given.


Rava’s idea that “those who go to its left, it is a sam hamaves, an elixir of death” can be somewhat frightening. It means that it’s possible to be a meticulously observant Jew with an intense program of Torah study and still be headed in the wrong direction, or as we would say in today’s parlance, “off the derekh“. (Even if we usually use that idiom to refer to who those who give up conforming to the religious norms of our community, to speak of a derekh does mean that the norms are used to pursue a “path”.) Worse, Rava tells us that a person who is fully engaged with the tools the Torah provides but lost sight of, or never formed, a vision of what it is he is to build is indeed worse off — poisoned, or as the Vilna Gaon put it, with a garden overgrown with weeds!

How would this play out communally?

One possible outcome is that we would find a community of very committed, very observant Jews, but who do not show all the signs of the holiness the Torah is supposed to bring us to. This could happen if there is insufficient attention to the entire notion of a goal beyond the halakhah, so that black letter halakhah — that which can be measured, laid out in clear obligated or prohibited terms — takes center seat without any attempt to become the kind of person more capable of fulfilling the full breadth of its commandments. There would be mixed reports of business ethics, scandals of respected rabbis committing fiscal crimes, others unable to control their lust, yet others abusing their power over their students in other ways.

Another possible outcome is an idealistic community, but one whose ideals are not Torah derived. In such a community ideals would be taken from some segment of the surrounding culture, and halakhah would be reduced to a means of “blessing” goals that we assimilated from the outside, that at times will resemble the holiness Hashem has readied for us, and at times will differ.

A third possibility is particular to a community that teaches the need to engage the world around it, to risk the battle of its challenges in order to use what’s positive in the surrounding society to further our sanctity. Without a firm eye and a constant striving toward an ideal, the energy it takes to maintain this delicate balance too easily collapses into a life of compromise. And so, for too many in this community the negative elements of modernity are incorporated into their lives, and also for many strict observance itself suffers.

Do these portraits sound familiar?

The typical Orthodox Jew knows that Hashem is “our Father in heaven” and yet also that he is the Omnipresent, but never even think of the question of how He can be described as both remote and also everywhere because we never realize we hold two different truths on the subject. And we all know that the goal of Judaism is to cleave to the Creator and we also know that it’s perfecting the “image” of the Divine that is our souls, and yet few of us even notice that dialectic either. Few of us therefore end up exploring our own solutions to dealing with these two goals when they contradict.

When a thinking child asks, as the wicked son does at the seder, “Mah ha’avodah hazos lakhem — what is this worship, this work, for you?” how many of us are equipped to give a meaningful answer for ourselves, never mind to teach to our children or students?


We will most naturally think of a solution in educational terms. But we are speaking of correcting basic attitudes and values. We repeatedly produce middos curricula for our schools but without a culture of refinement already in place, the knowledge will continue to have minimal impact on the students’ responses and decisions. Knowing that yiras Shamayim, fear and awe of the One in heaven, is of critical importance is not the same as actually feeling that awe and being driven to express it. Middos need very experiential programming, with examples that impress on an emotional level, not a curriculum of information to be conveyed. Even that must be done carefully, for we are not only trying to impress our youth with the importance of “chessed projects” to do acts of kindness. We are trying to produce baalei chessed, people with a passion for sharing, helping, and connecting to others.

So while school does have a role, camp and youth groups can do more, and peers, home and role models are indispensable. But providing an atmosphere from the parents’ generation downward presents us with a logical dilemma; our initial goal was to restore something currently given insufficient attention by too many of that self-same older generation!

If we cannot provide our children with examples of Jews who use the Torah in a conscious pursuit of holiness (whichever description of it best fits their inclinations, interests and abilities), we can at least provide them with adults who are taking conscious efforts to do so. So as I see it, the way out of this hole is going to involve both school and synagogue programming in parallel.

We have to reorient the mindset so that we not only know that Judaism is a path to becoming more than we were yesterday, but we actually make that our lifestyle. An Orthodoxy in which it’s natural to have spiritual goals for the year, daily and weekly exploration as to what we can do to reach those goals. Most of us invest this level of conscious planning into our jobs and careers, shouldn’t at least as much effort be expended on behalf of our souls?

Programming must simultaneously be provided by the synagogues for parents. Aside from needing to improve ourselves as adults for our own sake, we are also powerless to change the culture for the next generation without providing more role models in the current one. Not only offering classes, but practical exercises, systems for supporting each other in resolutions to change, and other hands-on tools must be explored. Fortunately, Chassidus, the Mussar Movement, as well as the more recent Self-Help movement in general Western society has each explored this territory before us and uncovered tools we could be harnessing.

Every other Sunday evening a half-dozen friends and I get together on a video chat and learn some Alei Shur, by Rav Shelomo Wolbe. The sections in question are divided into middos (both interpersonal and those that comprise our relationship with the Creator), and each middah into sections. A section is around a page, and at the end Rav Wolbe suggests an exercise. A small exercise, incrementing beyond the last one, slowly stretching our capability. The central feature is the exercise, not the learning. We discuss how we did at the opening of the next session, and perhaps if the problems outweigh the advance, we’ll decide to simply discuss the issues and not move forward.

Between meetings, chavrusah-partners check in with each other daily (or more) to see how it’s going. On the skipped Sunday, give or take a day, they review the material together. This way, you don’t lose momentum between meetings.

We call this invention an “eVaad“, an on-line variant of the ve’adim found in many Lithuanian yeshivos both within the Mussar movement and others. But over the next decade live ve’adim could in principle be made as much an expected function of most synagogues as daf yomi has in the prior generation.[2. If your shul or another group would like to get a va’ad started, we at The AishDas Society would be honored to offer guidance or otherwise help. Contact us at [email protected].]

More common among people looking for means of sparking inspiration and growth have been Chassidic modalities, such as the singing minyan, the kumzitz, the tish or the oneg Shabbos. And I’m sure the list continues. Much more work needs to be done in this area. Unfortunately I can only hope to start the conversation, not provide a complete menu of solutions.


As I see it, the specific elements of Hashem’s Word that we have been paying insufficient attention to can be spelled out in specific steps:

1- Machashavah — Philosophical Thought: The example I gave earlier of not realizing that I believe both that Hashem makes Himself available to us and that He is incomprehensible and remote was to highlight the fact that few of us have stopped since the basics were given to us in preschool. We therefore must introduce efforts to develop an approach to understanding Deity, creation, Divine Justice, Mercy and Providence, the afterlife, the historical march to the messianic era and the eventual resurrection. To know what the world is about and our place in it. We need to add texts like the Kuzari, Moreh Nevuchim, the Ramchal’s Derekh Hashem, Michtav meiEliyahu or the like to our curriculum.

2- Hashkafah — Worldview: That personal philosophy gives us a platform upon which to build a vision for how we are to live our lives, what our spiritual aspirations should be. Someone who is more comfortable with the Transcendent side of the dialectic about G-d isn’t someone who should be viewing his spiritual goals primarily in terms of connecting to Him. Instead, perhaps that lofty vision of G-d inspires them to better emulate him. Or to complete His World. Once we identified the building in the prior step, we can place our ladder on its wall.

3- Hislahavus — Fiery Passion: How can we passionately pursue something without knowing what it is we should be pursuing? But once we identified a path to ascend to holiness that plays to our strengths and proclivities, we can consider what steps to take to internalize those ideals emotionally and to have the ability to live up to them in the heat of the moment. This is not educating the brain, but rather inculcating into the heart, and why there is such a need to explore experiential programming for both adults and children.[1. The entire concept of dialectic is an engine. To say a problem has a dialectical nature means that we acknowledge the truth of two very different perspectives, that we find the “answer” to a question more in grappling with the conflict and developing a “dialog” with the ideas than in any final resolution. Grappling with the questions of why we are here and what we should do about it can itself generate a passion for living a more meaningful life, one that is focused on growth.]

4- Taamei Hamitzos — Meanings or lessons that can be gleaned from the mitzvos: Torah-based spirituality cannot be a set of practices that stand apart from the actual mandatory observance. Building a meaningful Judaism can’t involve two separate worlds — one of following the Shulchan Arukh and the other of spiritual practices, kumzitzen, mussar groups, or the like. The tools Hashem gave us or taught the Jewish People how to craft through the halakhic process have to be the most effective ones for building the palace that is our life’s goal.

With such work and changes, our worship of Hashem can be enhanced in at least three ways:

First, at the moment when temptation strikes, we will possess the tools to make the right decision. Without working on one’s middos, the observance of the “duties of the limbs” will always remain imperfect. Even our basic observance cannot stand if it is all we pursue.

Second, there are also the “Chovos haLvavos – Duties of the Heart,” as Rabbeinu Bachya named his text, or as the Rambam put it, “Hilkhos Dei’os — the Laws of Attitudes”. Refining one’s ethics, i.e. controlling one’s temper, curbing desires for sex, power, control over others, and other destructive urges, is itself among the 613 mitzvos. This is embodied in, “וְעָשִׂיתָ הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵי ﬣ׳ – And you will do the good and the honest in the eyes of G-d,” (Devarim 6:18), and “קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי – You shall be holy, for I am Holy,” (Vayikra 19:2), “וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ – You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (ibid v. 18), and “וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ﬣ׳ אֱלֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ, וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ – You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources,” (Devarim 6:5), and is indeed the central theme of the narratives of Bereishis the majority of Nakh.

Last, working to become a refined and holy person is the entire goal of the Torah. Hashem introduces His covenant with Abraham by telling him to “walk yourself before Me and be whole,” (Bereishis 17:1). Thus, perfecting one’s ability to relate to Hashem and to other people is the goal of the entire observance, not merely a means to fulfill other mitzvos and doing mitzvos themselves. Hashem handed us tools, let’s study the blueprint and the work materials and build.

Each of us start with ourselves, in a small, doable and realistic way. Look for one thing you’d like to do differently and work on it. Seek out like-minded individuals, and rely on each other for support. Discuss this topic with your children. Explain why it’s important.

And most of all, grow!

About Micha Berger

Rabbi Micha Berger founded the AishDas Society and hosts one of the internet's longest-running active Torah e-mail lists Avodah and its broader discussion area Areivim. He recently published Widen Your Tent: Thoughts on Life, Integrity & Joy.


  1. So very glad I took time to read this tonight and let it sink in.

    “We have to reorient the mindset so that we not only know that Judaism is a path to becoming more than we were yesterday, but we actually make that our lifestyle.” – Indeed. I think this essay is a step in that directions.

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