Towards the beginning of Parashat Eikev, Moshe tells Benei Yisrael of the rewards they will receive for faithfully observing God’s laws, including, “there shall not be an infertile man or woman, also among your animals” (7:14).
The Gemara in Masekhet Bekhorot (44b) cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi as interpreting this verse as a promise that one would not be “infertile” in the sense of not having students to teach, and that his prayers will not be “infertile” in the sense of being unanswered, as they will instead yield the desired results. These blessings are earned, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught, only “bi-behemtekha” (“among your animals”), which he explains to mean, “if you make yourself like an animal.” According to Tosafot, this refers to humility, not demanding special honor and respect, expecting no more recognition than that which is generally accorded to animals.
The Tolna Rebbe finds it significant that this statement was made specifically by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who, as we know from other passages in the Talmud, excelled in this quality of disregard for personal honor. The Gemara in Masekhet Ketubot (77b) tells that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would surround himself with “ba’alei ra’atan” – patients stricken with the most severe forms of leprosy – and teach them, confident that the merit of Torah instruction would protect him from this contagious illness. The Tolna Rebbe suggests reading this account allegorically, to mean that Rabbi Yehoshua would work with those on the lowest spiritual levels, those who have become distant from Torah like lepers who are kept far away from the rest of society. Rabbi Yehoshua sought to bring Torah to all Jews, to help everyone he could, without concern for his own honor and reputation. He could have earned more prestige and acclaim by teaching top-tier students, but he was not interested in prestige and acclaim, and so he set out to bring the beauty and wisdom of Torah to anybody he could, including the “ba’alei ra’atan,” those furthest from Torah knowledge and observance.
Elsewhere, in Masekhet Kiddushin (30a), the Gemara tells that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was once seen throwing a cloth over his head, rather than putting on a proper head covering, in his rush to teach his grandson. In his excitement and fervor to teach elementary Torah material to his young grandchild, Rabbi Yehoshua hurried out the door without worrying about giving a dignified appearance.
Fittingly, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught the importance of making oneself “like an animal,” of having no interest in honor and prestige. He emphasized that the key to “fertility” – to being productive, accomplished, and having our wishes fulfilled – is pristine sincerity, living our lives with the sole desire to bring glory to our Creator, and not to bring glory to ourselves.