Torah Study and Work: Ethics of the Fathers 2:2

May 9, 2009

9 min read


Striking a balance between the world of the spirit and the world of the body.

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without work will ultimately result in desolation and will cause sinfulness.

All who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of the community's forefathers will help them, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, God will reward you greatly as if you accomplished it on your own.

Ethics of the Fathers, 2:2

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"Torah study and worldly occupation"

Spirituality or materialism? Scholarship or profession? With so many decisions, conventional wisdom often leads us to believe that we must choose one or the other.
The Torah teaches otherwise.

Indeed, the question of how to strike a balance between the world of the spirit and the world of the body, between Torah study and material involvement, ranks among the most persistent and complex in Jewish philosophy.

In the generation following the destruction of the Second Temple, when the odds on Jewish survival were incalculably long, Rabbi Yishmael's academy followed the ideal of Torah im derech eretz -- Torah with a worldly occupation -- while Rabbi Shimon's school practiced Torah bli derech eretz -- Torah with no worldly occupation. The Talmud reports that many followed Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded, and that many followed Rabbi Shimon and failed.

This is not an indictment of Rabbi Shimon, but rather a statement of fact concerning the "many." The students who succeeded as disciples of Rabbi Shimon possessed an unwavering trust in the biblical promise that, "If you walk in My ways ... then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will yield its produce" (Leviticus 26:3-4). About any individual who immersed himself in Torah study with absolute faith and trust it was said: "Torah Umenaso -- Torah study was truly his worldly occupation."

For the rest of us -- the "many" -- however, our involvement in Torah study requires balance with some material vocation. Only one who possess perfect trust and faith in the Almighty can expect all of his material needs to be taken care of for him. Most of us, if we tried to live lives of pure faith, would grow quickly discontented, bitter, and resentful of the material prosperity of our neighbors. This would erode our commitment to Torah which, in our Mishna's words, would lead to 'desolation' and 'sinfulness.'

It is worth noting that Rabbi Yishmael advised his students to work only two months a year, in the plowing and harvesting seasons. This was considered adequate involvement in 'worldly occupation.' The other ten months they devoted themselves exclusively to Torah study.

It is also worth mentioning that the great leader of 19th Century German Jewry, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, interpreted the expression derech eretz not as 'worldly occupation' but as 'world culture.' According to the vision of Rabbi Hirsch, a Jew required some familiarity with the culture of his times. A measured involvement in science, history, music, and literature can enhance one's appreciation of Torah. But Rabbi Hirsch stressed that derech eretz must always be considered with Torah study. In other words, Torah must always be our unchanging reference point, the lens through which we view and interpret the world. Should we ever allow world culture to supplant Torah as the basis of our reality, then we have taken the first step down the road to spiritual desolation.

"because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin"

Here our Mishna identifies 'exertion' as critical to the human condition. Since Man's expulsion from Eden, his lot has been to toil. But this is not something negative. For indeed, there is nothing more is more rewarding and satisfying than to work hard toward a meaningful goal and to succeed. Conversely, how much harm comes to the world through people who have too much free time on their hands and no sense of purpose or productivity?

According to one study, two-thirds of all multi-million dollar lottery winners eventually confessed that their windfalls ruined their lives: with no sense of purpose, they lost all motivation to toil; without toil, their lives lost all meaning.

Rabban Gamliel advises us to maintain two accessible avenues for channeling our productive energies. If Torah study alone may at times become too abstract or esoteric, we have the practical involvement of work. And if work may sometimes seem too tedious or mundane, we have the uplifting and inspiring involvement in Torah. Together, they keep our minds and hearts from becoming idle, and thereby save us from sin.

"All Torah without work will ultimately result in desolation and will cause sinfulness"

At first glance, this comment appears nothing more than a recapitulation of what has already been stated. The key to understanding, however, depends upon the word 'work,' which is translated not from the Hebrew avodah, meaning 'labor,' but from melachah, meaning 'creative activity.'

This choice of language illuminates the earlier comment concerning Torah and derech eretz with a completely different light. It is not necessarily gainful employment that is the essential complement of Torah, but a practical means of directing one's Torah perspective into concrete action. In many cases this may indeed mean a profession or vocation. But it also means something much more.

Indeed, since there are many ways to make a living, why choose one occupation over another? Naturally, we are motivated in the direction of our talents and interests, since we want to be competent at what we do and to make the world a better place. We feel that our existence is justified if we spend our days and years healing the sick, educating the young, or defending the weak and poor. But even if our choice of profession is directed primarily by making money, that in itself may be a worthy goal if we use our wealth to give charity and provide for the needs of our families and the larger community.

Once again, our Mishna seeks to sensitize us to the importance of directing Torah ideals into positive actions.

"All who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven"

If I am truly devoting myself to the common good, I might easily rationalize my own less-than-altruistic motives. Perhaps I want recognition. Or influence. Or power. why not, And if in pursuit of these I am genuinely serving the collective, why not?

Our mishna warns us: no!

In Torah philosophy, intent is often inseparable from action itself. Selfish or wicked intentions can render a good deed worthless, no matter what the practical benefit, since without pure motives the act of a good deed will neither transform the doer nor elevate him to a higher spiritual level. Similarly, pure intentions may mitigate a misdeed, so long as the doer operated sincerely and chose his action based upon all the information available him at the time.

In fact, Jewish law prohibits taking a salary to teach Torah or to be a Torah leader. All that is allowed is what one could be making in a comparable job if he were not serving the community as a disseminator of Torah. For if financial incentive becomes a factor in one¹s position as a Torah teacher or leader, one can no longer trust one's own judgment in remaining faithful to Torah ideals.

"for the merit of the community's forefathers will help them, and their righteousness endures forever"

The Mishna here alludes to the idea of z'chus avos, that the meritorious deeds of our ancestors can support us, their children and grandchildren, throughout the generations. This is not comparable to inheriting a fortune and living off the labors of others. The kabbalists explain that our fathers only bestow their merit upon children who labor on their own. In other words, if I rely on my forefathers' merit then it will not serve me at all. Only if I exert full effort in making my own way, not expecting anything other than what I earn for myself, only then the accumulated merit of my ancestors will carry me farther than I ever could have gone on my own.

In the context of our Mishna, those who selflessly serve the community are the true children of the community's forefathers, more than their biological sons and daughters. And so, by investing themselves in the communal welfare, communal servants earn divine assistance not only through the merit of their own forebears but also through the forebears of all who benefit from their efforts, forebears who, by having labored in the interest of the collective, acquired inexhaustible merit.

"And as for you, God will reward you greatly as if you accomplished it on your own"

Understanding that his successes depend in part upon the merit of his ancestors, the sincere communal servant might reasonably assume that he will only earn heavenly reward for what he could have done on his own. The Mishna teaches otherwise. Since his effort is the catalyst for invoking the merit of the community's forefathers, the communal servant receives reward not only for his own efforts, but for all that he accomplishes, irrespective of whether or not he could have done it alone.

Here our Mishna comes full circle. For Rabban Gamliel first taught that, even though there is no higher calling than Torah study, Torah will come to nothing unless it is channeled into positive action. We might think, therefore, that we must sacrifice some Torah in order to preserve the rest. But now Rabban Gamliel assures us that directing Torah into positive action is the highest expression of Torah itself, whether that action takes the form of professional occupation or of extending oneself to benefit the community. There is no loss. Just the opposite: by taking time away from Torah to ensure the preservation of Torah values and ideals, we receive credit as if we had immersed ourselves in Torah without interruption. By taking time away from Torah study is in order to put Torah ideals into practice, then our reward will continue to multiply over and over again.

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