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Shalom.

A simple question: In Mishlei (9:12) it is written that one who has become wise has become wise for their own sake or for their own good. Does this imply that one cannot be wise for the sake of Heaven? Must the pursuit of chokhmah always be selfish?

Many thanks for your time.

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The most pashut meaning of all is simply, it's in your hands to become wise or a scoffer. If you are wise, that's on you. If you are a scoffer, that's on you. However, there are of course deeper meanings. There are so many wonderful commentaries on this pasuk, I hope to see other answers, as I can't cover them all! Ibn Ezra on that pasuk states:

כטעם אם תצדק מה תתן לו

"along the lines of if you are righteous, what do you give Him? (based on Job 35:7)"

This line means that no matter how hard we try, our righteousness pales in comparison to Hashem's Righteousness. We will never "impress" Him by becoming righteous, and the whole purpose of this is to avoid arrogance.

Pursuing righteousness can go to one's head, "I am as right as can be, I am righteous!" However, someone truly righteous can never be so arrogant - arrogance is a prime concern in Torah. So Hashem helps us and reminds us how lowly we are.

Nowadays though, we might have taken this idea too far, and said "nothing about us at all will ever impress or move Hashem, He doesn't care" chas veshalom. So we must remember what isn't being said.

Yes, it's true, Hashem doesn't need us to be righteous, but nobody said that He doesn't need us. On the contrary, that's why we become righteous - that's a means to an end; thats how we can give Him ourselves.

תזכרו ועשיתם את־כל־מצותי והייתם קדשים לאלקיכם

You will remember and do all My Mitzvot and you will be holy for [Me] (Bamidbar 15:40)

He's not after the righteousness, He's after us.

So what is Ibn Ezra possibly saying about this pasuk? It seems he is saying that this means that no matter how much of a chacham you become, your chochma is never going to impress Hashem, who invented chochma and knows everything. Don't be arrogant, or think that you are becoming wise to offer your wisdom to Hashem. Hashem created wisdom so that you should acquire it and learn about Him, and thus be able to give yourself to Him, which will also be on you - you did it. You get the credit for it.

On the other hand, as the rest of the pasuk says, if one scoffs, that's akin to thirst (Ibn Ezra 3 on the same pasuk). When one is thirsty, only they feel that feeling, and when they drink, they drink only for themselves. There's absolutely no connection between scoffing and getting closer to Hashem, so they will be alone.

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  • Thank you Rabbi Kaii - please forgive me for presuming to teach to you a few weeks ago.
    – Tom W
    Apr 28, 2023 at 11:36
  • @TomW if you are worried about the halacha of not teaching one's Rabbi a halacha, it doesn't apply here but you are a real mentsch thank you. I don't remember but either way, please teach me!
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Apr 28, 2023 at 11:42
  • Thank you, will do and hear :)
    – Tom W
    Apr 28, 2023 at 11:48
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An interesting insight on the matter is from Bartenura on Ben Zoma in Avot 4:1 ("Who is wise? He who learns from every man.")

"Every man" -- even one lesser than he. As since he is not concerned about his honor and learns from the lesser ones, then his wisdom is for the sake of Heaven and not to boast and revel in.

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