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A Study in Pirkei Avos – Chapter 2, Mishna 2 (b)

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Our Torah knowledge is only real and concrete when we have used it to impact on the world at large

Torah Study vs. Earning A Livelihood, Part II

“Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, good is Torah study together with a worldly occupation, for the exertion in both makes one forget sin. All Torah study without work will result in waste and will cause sinfulness. Anyone who works for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of their [the community members’s] forefathers will help him, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, [says G-d], I will grant you much reward as if you accomplished it on your own.”

Last week we discussed the first part of our mishna, and we made a very strong case for earning one’s own keep. No one, it seems, should study Torah unless he has a steady and sufficient means of support. Studying Torah while thrusting the burden of one’s support upon others is not only irresponsible and fraught with moral dangers, it is a desecration of G-d’s Name of the most heinous sort. Of all people the Torah scholar will be the contemptible beggar, dragging down not only himself but the Torah he represents in the eyes of the masses.

This week we are going to methodically challenge that premise, and we will see that as with many issues in life, even something so apparently explicit and one-sided is never really so simple. (If nothing else, that in itself is an important lesson for us all.)

Let us examine the mishna more closely. It made two separate points. The first was that Torah study plus an occupation keeps us so busy that we “forget” sin. The second was that insufficient means of support leads to “waste” and “sinfulness”, meaning it will reduce us to want and poverty, with all their consequent dangers and pitfalls.

Now the mishna’s first point, that we “forget” sin, has nothing to do with finances. Thus, theoretically, even if someone would win the lottery and be blessed with an infinite supply of money, he should still work just in order to keep himself occupied and out of trouble. (We always hear stories of the fellow who won umpteen million in the lottery, put it in the bank, and went back to being the window washer he always was. Such people no doubt saved themselves and their sanity in the process…)

The obvious question then is why is it necessary to take on an occupation just to remain productive? Why not just study more hours? Rather than studying 4 hours and working for 8, why not just study 12 hours a day?

The answer, simply, is that most people cannot be fully productive through study alone. Not everyone is sufficiently intellectually-inclined or motivated to sit around and contemplate his navel indefinitely. We need to feel we are productive; only concrete accomplishments give us this feeling. For most of us, to truly feel good about ourselves — to see the good path in life as so rewarding and fulfilling that we “forget” sin — we need to do more than study.

Thus, the first point of our mishna is that we must work for our own fulfillment. This does not necessarily imply a lifelong, all-consuming career. But our study is not an ends in itself. We must find further outlets for our talents — whether volunteer work, community involvement, or simply bequeathing the next generation the knowledge we ourselves have acquired.

(Of course, if one’s work involves benefiting the Jewish community, all the better. Thus, the end of our mishna, after establishing the need to work, praises those whose work involves community service.)

The above provides us with an excellent insight into the wording of our mishna. We pointed out last week that the term used in the beginning of our mishna for “work” is “derech eretz” — literally, “the way of the land,” which more generally refers to all types of positive involvement with others. The second line, however, which talks about the financial dangers of not working, uses a more typical word for work — “melacha”. Why the change in terminology?

The answer is that even financial considerations aside, we should work because we must have “derech eretz:” we should see value in positive interaction with all of mankind. We should not feel the ideal is to lock ourselves away and study our entire lives.

That is a very unhealthy way to live — and Jewishly, it misses the entire point. Our goal is to be entirely productive human beings, and that is ideally done through our involvement with others and the world around us. We must take our Torah study and apply it. We need to feel a sense of responsibility towards others and want to impact positively upon mankind. Study is not an ends. It is only a means — and the first step — towards true fulfillment.

(Any of us who have tasted the real thing — Torah study at an advanced level, know how tempting it is to just forget the rest of the world and focus on our own study and acquisition of the Torah: there is just so much to learn. But ultimately, our Torah knowledge is only real and concrete when we have used it to impact on the world at large. Well Dave, keep on writing…)

We now arrive at our mishna’s second point — the financial dangers of study without work. Here there are a few important qualifications which must be discussed. Firstly, not only is it forbidden for an able-bodied individual to study and rely on charity for his support. It is also forbidden for one to use his Torah knowledge as a means of support. We will learn later: “Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig” (4:7). The Torah is ours to study and master, but not ours to market.

According to this, it would be forbidden by letter of law for a Torah educator or practicing rabbi to receive a paycheck (perhaps never very high anyway). In fact, the scholars of the Mishna and Talmud generally all had some kind of profession on the side. [Sometimes they were nicknamed according to their professions, such as the well-known Rabbi Yochanan the sandal maker (well, it sounds better in the Hebrew…).] Many later authorities, however, permit Torah educators and the like to draw a salary for their work for various reasons, and this is of course the universal practice today. (And in fact, they likewise permit Torah students to accept support since today there is often no other way to produce Torah scholars in sufficient quantity.) A complete discussion of this subject is beyond the scope of this class, although I do discuss it at greater length in 4:7 (hyperlink above).

There are two other important exceptions to the rule. The first is known as the Yissachar-Zevulun partnership. The Sages tell us that in Ancient Israel, the members of the Tribe of Yissachar studied Torah exclusively (and afterwards served as judges of Israel), while the seafaring Tribe of Zevulun supported them financially through their business ventures (Bereishis Rabbah 99:9 and Tanchuma Vayechi 11, brought in Rashi to Gen. 49:13 and Deut. 33:18). Such an arrangement is enriching for both parties, as they both share in the eternal rewards earned by the Torah study.

The second exception touches upon yet another important issue in Judaism. The origin of earning a living comes from Adam. G-d punished man after the primordial sin that he would eat bread only through the sweat of his brow (Genesis 3:19). This, however, was not the ideal.

Had man not sinned, he would have eaten the fruits of the Garden for his sustenance. The physical world would have remained in complete harmony with the spiritual, and all of man’s needs would have been satisfied without any effort on his part. Now, however, plowing the earth and working for one’s living have become as axiomatic to the human condition as death itself — also decreed upon Adam (not to mention paying taxes).

Yet the question remains: Is it at all possible for an individual to free himself from this curse of man? Must we all bear the curse? Or can a person, sufficiently worthy, rise above it?           (Torah.org)

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