In Yaakov’s deathbed blessing to his son Yissakhar, he compares the tribe of Yissakhar to a “bony donkey, crouching in between the boundaries” (49:14). The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 99:9), as Rashi cites, interprets this analogy as a reference to the fact that Yissakhar would produce descendants who served as the nation’s Torah scholars. The image of a strong donkey bearing heavy loads of cargo depicts the intensity of study required to amass comprehensive Torah scholarship, the “burden” of responsibility that a scholar bears to study, review and process large quantities of information in order to issue accurate rulings. The image of a donkey “crouching between boundaries,” the Midrash explains, refers to the fact that transport donkeys are not given the opportunity to enjoy a proper night’s sleep. At most, they are allowed to crouch and rest for brief periods in between the cities to where they deliver cargo. This symbolizes the scholar’s obligation to learn and analyze without allowing himself rest, the ongoing, lifelong process of scholarship which leaves no time for real vacations.
Rav Shaul Broch of Kashau, in Bi-heyot Ha-boker, offers an additional possible explanation for the image of “roveitz bein ha-mishpetayim” – a donkey crouching in between two “boundaries.” One of the most difficult challenges faced by scholars of Halakha, he explains, is to decide upon one of two lines of reasoning. Very often, cogent arguments could be made for both sides of an issue, and the scholar is forced to carefully scrutinize the different sides and weigh their strengths and weaknesses, in order to reach a conclusion. And thus scholars often find themselves “crouching in between the boundaries,” situated in between two equally formidable arguments, working diligently to find the compelling reason or reasons to favor one over the other.
If so, then the metaphor of the laboring donkey expresses the hard work and patience needed to carefully weigh all sides of an issue before reaching a decision. Just as a donkey trudges along, progressing slowly, one step at a time, similarly, we need to move slowly and carefully when processing information in order to reach final conclusions. The “burden” of scholarship includes the responsibility to see both “boundaries,” all angles of the question at hand, rather than hastily reaching a conclusion based on impulse and intuition.