Excuses, Responsibility and Achievement

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #28a: Excuses, Responsibility and Achievement

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

The Rabbis taught: The poor, the rich and the wicked come before the [heavenly] court. They say to the poor man, "Why did you not occupy yourself with Torah?" If he says, "I was poor and I was concerned about my sustenance," they say to him, "Were you any poorer than Hillel?"…

They ask the rich man, "Why did you not occupy yourself with Torah?" If he says, "I was rich and preoccupied with my possessions," they say to him, "Were you any wealthier than R. Elazar"…

They ask the wicked man, "Why did you not occupy yourself with Torah? If he says, "I was good looking and preoccupied with my evil inclination," they say to him, "Were you better looking than Yosef" …

Thus Hillel obligates the poor, R. Elazar ben Charsom obligates the rich, and Yosef obligates the wicked. (Yoma 35b)

I have omitted the particular stories of how these three individuals overcame their hardships to succeed in Torah. Although each of those stories merits analysis, this broader overview of the gemara will suffice for our purposes. A few questions immediately emerge. First, does it not seem odd to include our forefather Yosef, known traditionally as "Yosef Ha-tzaddik," in the category of the reshaim? Secondly, a broader glance at the overall narrative reveals that this gemara lumps together three individuals with very different excuses. Most of us would likely feel far more sympathetic towards the poor man's defense than for that of the rich fellow. Why does the gemara place side by side people with very different degrees of culpability for their inadequacy?

R. Yosef Chayyim of Baghdad (the Ben Ish Chai) writes in his Ben Yehoyada that each of these individuals actually has two excuses. The poor man says that he was too busy working long hours performing difficult, menial tasks to find time to engage in Torah. In addition, he claims that his constant anxiety about providing for his family denied him the psychological equanimity required for meaningful learning. The rich man echoes the excuse of limited time. Indeed, managing many estates and businesses can certainly dominate a person's schedule. Additionally, the wealthy fellow argues that he in fact was involved in Torah. After all, he donated the new wing of the yeshiva, or supported other educational programs. In this explanation, R. Yosef Chayyim teaches us that we can affirm the importance of financial contributions without concluding that such largesse exempts the giver from the responsibility to see to his own growth in learning and devotion.

The rasha similarly mentions two excuses. Like the other two, he also employs the lack of time as a justification. The late night bar scene does not leave much time for learning. Secondly, he claims that he does not belong in a shiur due to his evil ways. How could the holy Torah connect to a rotten personality like himself? Herein lies a general insight of profound import and an answer to our first question. A definitive self–determination of iniquity often prevents one from repenting, as he deems it pointless to try to bring sanctity into something evil. A healthier approach for those struggling religiously would entail their acknowledgement of their need for fundamental improvement without adopting the self–referential identity of the rasha. It thus seems that this third category actually refers to a person struggling with temptation, and not to an all-out rasha. Therefore, Yosef, the paradigm of successful triumph over temptation, indeed belongs in this category. The gemara refers to this category as that of the rasha precisely because it is this self-identification that perpetuates his sinful tendencies.

Let us return to our second question. As mentioned, this gemara combines a range of excuses with varying degrees of cogency. For example, "I was occupied in supporting my poor family" sounds much more convincing than "I was busy with the town nightlife." Why does the gemara juxtapose these three categories, apparently equating the validity of all these excuses? I believe that the answer emerges from a simple analogy. Imagine a sports team that loses its star player to injury midway through the year. In theory, that team could choose to lose the rest of their games content with the knowledge that they have a compelling excuse for losing. Quite obviously, however, coaches and their teams do not react that way. Rather, they try to find a way to win despite the availability of an eminently reasonable excuse.

A basic distinction explains this reaction. On the one hand, one can evaluate a situation from the perspective of moral culpability. From this perspective, the quality of the excuse becomes central to the analysis. Alternatively, he can focus his attention on achieving the goal he deems important. From this second perspective, the quality of the excuse becomes entirely irrelevant. The athletic team is interested not in acquitting themselves before the heavenly court of sports, but rather in winning the games. Therefore, they will focus not on their justifiable grounds for absolution, but on how to win games even under the difficult conditions that have presented themselves.

The goal of becoming an educated Jew certainly demands more effort than athletic success. Perhaps this gemara shifts our focus from the question of responsibility to that of achievement. Indeed, if we discuss culpability, then the poor person would receive a higher grade than his wealthy peer. However, this gemara seeks to emphasize the need to become knowledgeable even when reasonable excuses lie handy. Within that framework, it is more productive to speak of models of overcoming these hardships than pointing to the relative worth of different excuses. Rather than relying on their varying excuses, Hillel, R. Elazar and Yosef demonstrate the ability to overcome obstacles in order to achieve the most important goals in life.