Pirkei Avot 2:2 - Making the most of Torah Study

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama
Elisheva Maline

Rabban Gamliel, the son of of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi (Judah the Prince) says, "It is seemly to combine the study of Torah with an occupation, for the wearying labor of both keeps sin forgotten. All Torah study that is not accompanied by work will come to nothing. Not only that, it will bring sin in its wake. Let all who work for the community, and for the people of the community, work with them for the sake of heaven since it is the merit of their fathers which sustains them.... And as for you, I [G-d] will account you worthy of great reward, as if you had done [everything]." 

The phrasal mixture above piques the imagination since, after all, Rabban Gamliel's style allows for the making of several conclusions. Let us start with one. While he prioritizes time for studying Torah, he also advocates for derech eretz (gentleman-like behaviorisms) and a side job. Yet isn't the end all be all in Torah Judaism about accumulating time to study Torah? If the Torah scholar has the option to learn free of financial or familial worries etc., would that not be the best? How does the combination of immersion within the holy pages of the talmud and physical necessities improve one's spiritual levels?

He answers, "The wearying labor of Torah study and working keeps sin forgotten." Torah study, which includes Jewish laws and principles that pertain to both man and G-d, will tax the mind more than a six a.m. jog will cause the body to sweat. Also, one must bear in mind that the Torah was not written for theory's sake. Hashem created and handed us His precious instructions so that we might make His will manifest in this world. Part of G-d's will is for man to treat others with the derech eretz, the respect, that friends, family and fellow human beings deserve. Talk softly and don't interrupt anyone mid sentence, especially one's parents. Don't cut people in line at the grocery or in amusement parks. If crowded, give the old person or pregnant lady your spot on the bus. You may find that you enjoy treating people according to the dictates of what the Torah terms derech ertez.

No one is saying that working to be the kind of person who treats others  well is easy. Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founding father of the mussar movement said once, "It is far easier to cover the entire shas than it is to change one middah (character trait)." Labor is definitely a word that could be attributed to learning and respecting.

Next, Rabban Gamliel adds that once a person has mastered the ability to mull over the words of Torah he is fit for becoming a community servant sans corruption. In fact, the man who is disciplined enough to divide his time equally between Torah study and whatever work he is involved in (with the emphasis on the Torah study), will find that he may go into politics without sullying his soul on the lies and bribes that power lures people into. Moreover, public office jobs are filled with ulterior motives: pride, glory, even revenge. Therefore, Rabban Gamliel declares that the one who learns thoroughly will not only be the worthiest of serving the community, he will be able to do so without abusing his position.    

This last phrase in Rabbi Yehudah haNasi's son's mishna shows us the kindness of G-d. G-d assures us that if we do our very best, even if we don't do everything, He will reward us as if we had accomplished every step on our own. This assurance is an invitation to leave our egos locked out of any project we may throw ourselves into. Organize a charity dinner, ask your friends to bake a cake for a friend's birthday but don't for a second think that because you came up with an idea or because you were the catalyst for moving projects along that you're the star of the show. If Hashem wanted your success, then you tasted success and if He didn't, then you didn't. All that notwithstanding, in some cases, we really would serve the community in a wholly focused if we could... but sometimes it's just not humanly possible. There's not enough time in the day, there's a particular talent we lack which limits our capacity to contribute. The list stretches. Nevertheless, G-d says, "I will account you wothy of great reward, as if you had done everything."

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