Monday, April 26, 2010

Back to the Gemara and Lessons about why and how we learn Torah

Back to the Gemara and Lessons about why and how we learn Torah

In my ongoing Gemara learning with my son, Brian, we are approaching the end of 8a of Berachot. This week we learned the following text:

And Rabbi Chiya bar Ami said in the name of Ulla, Greater is he who derives benefit from his own labor and efforts (while showing awe for G-d) than the one who shows awe for G-d (and does not labor on his own but depends on others for sustenance). (translated from the text on Berachot 8a)

At this point, as often happens in the Gemara, Rabbi Chiya quotes texts from Tanach to amplify the point just presented. The two texts that are quoted both come to us from Tehilim, the Book of Psalms:

About the one who has great awe for G-d and does not depend on his own labor for sustenance, we read in Tehilim 112.1 that

א הַֽלְלוּיָ֨הּ ׀ אַשְׁרֵי־אִ֭ישׁ יָרֵ֣א אֶת־יְהֹוָ֑ה בְּ֝מִצְוֹתָ֗יו חָ֘פֵ֥ץ מְאֹֽד:

Happy is the person who has awe for G-d and wants greatly (to do) G-d’s commandments.

About the one who derives benefit from his own labor and efforts while showing awe for G-d (this is understood as always being part of the equation in such texts and omission is not due to lack of presence, but the fact that this awe is a given), we read in Tehilim 128.2 that

ב יְגִ֣יעַ כַּ֭פֶּיךָ כִּ֣י תֹאכֵ֑ל אַ֝שְׁרֶ֗יךָ וְט֣וֹב לָֽךְ:

You shall eat from (enjoy) the efforts (fruits) of your hands (labor); you will be happy and it will go well for you.

The text of the Gemara now shows that Rabbi Chiya points to the fact that in both cases people are happy (note the root for happiness: aleph – shin – reish), but only when one works and then depends upon and derives what he needs from this labor, do we add the blessing that “it will go well for you.” The notion is presented that the happiness will come in this world, in Olam HaZeh, while the “good” that will be his reward comes in Olam HaBa. This second blessing does not appear for the one who only depends on G-d, but does not provide for his family and himself.

Clearly this runs counter to the well known joke of an intended son-in-law who comes to his future father-in-law before the wedding. He has already indicated that his plans are to learn full time in Kollel and he does not intend to work at a profession. The father-in-law-to-be is appropriately concerned and asks him, “So, how will you pay for your home?” The young man quickly replies to this, “G-d will provide.” The father-in-law then continues to ask, “What about the food that you need to eat?” Once again, the young scholar answers, “G-d will provide.” “How will you educate your children?” persists the father-in-law with his line of questioning. Again, the same response, “G-d will provide.” This goes on for some time with the father-in-law questioning and the intended son-in-law continuing to pronounce his simple response. After the conversation the father-in-law-to-be goes to see his wife. “So, how did the conversation go,” she asks. “Great,” replies her husband, “The young man thinks I am G-d.”

This is not an empty joke based upon a theoretical situation but reflects the truth for many families in many of our communities. I distinctly remember years ago when I heard a D’var Torah by one of the Rabbaim in our community who insisted that we are responsible for the education of every child and once we finish paying for our own children, those who are paying ARE OBLIGATED to pay for the other children in the community whose families cannot (will not?! because of their choices) do so. I was extremely offended by the implications that we all understood. Namely, for those who study full time, I and the other professionals are supposed to join that father-in-law and provide. What does doing so deny my children for whom I take COMPLETE FINANCIAL responsibility and work hard to make sure that they have what they need? More importantly, what would doing so TEACH my children about not relying on their own skills and capacity to support and take care of themselves?

Now, true many will charge that the teaching cited above is Aggadic material (the stories we tell) and therefore is not weighted as much as Halachic (legal) material. In this framework, this story has little if any standing to support my case for not buying the “support our Kollel families” mentality. However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches us that the stories we tell as part of our Jewish foundational texts are not only as important as the laws we teach but more so in that they give us a sense of the application of the laws by real people in real times. In other words, for Sacks, these stories are not devoid of Halacha but rather the activation of their practice and applications in our lives.

One does not have to go far to understand this. Remember that the Tanaim and Amoraim had professions in addition to their reputation as learners of text. They were water carriers, hewers of wood, teachers, doctors, and contributed to society as well as supported themselves and their families by a variety of means. Why is this NOT the example followed in too many (though clearly not all!) corridors of Jewish learning communities today?

Now, we return to our text at hand from Berachot 8a. The message is clear. We are to study Torah, have awe of G-d, AND understand that the best way to actualize and put these things and teachings into practice is precisely by being involved in a worldly occupation. Shimeon Bar Yochai learned this lesson when he emerged from the cave in which he was for so long and misunderstood what he saw when he observed people preparing for Shabbat by dealing with their crops and produce. As a result of not understanding that this is the way of the world and actualizing Torah in the world – namely to be involved in the world in practical ways – he was sent by G-d back into his cave. Perhaps this is the problem – too many in our communities have willfully created their own caves and refuse to be part of worldly pursuits.

It is at this point that the text of Berachot 8a comes to teach us that we have to take responsibility for ourselves. We have to provide for our families and the wellbeing of those for whom we are responsible as well as learn and show that we have awe of G-d. In fact, by taking responsibilities we ARE SHOWING our awe for G-d by taking care of ourselves and others created by G-d to whom we are directly accountable.

No comments:

Post a Comment