Shiur #12: Pat Ba-melach
Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers
Shiur #12: Pat Ba-melach
By Rav Moshe Taragin
The fourth mishna of the sixth perek issues a strident demand as a prerequisite for Torah excellence: "This is the manner of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink measured amounts of water, sleep on the earth, and live a meager and 'agonizing' life while you labor in Torah. If you pursue this policy, you will be blessed and fortunate fortunate in this world, and blessed in the next world."
Clearly, this sets a very demanding standard for Torah ambition. To a degree, Rashi already qualifies this stipulation when he claims that the mishna is outlining the extent of struggle to which a person must subject himself IF NECESSARY. A person cannot justify a Torah-study exemption because of poverty, but must tolerate potential financial distress as a price for Torah commitment. Rashi stresses his qualification by citing a gemara in Horiyut (10b) which exclaims, "Were the righteous ever discriminated against if they happened to enjoy material wealth?" This gemara confirms Rashi's sense that financial difficulty should not be pursued, but rather accepted if conditions warrant.
However, despite Rashi's qualification, it is clear that the mishna is encouraging at least a willingness to bear a financially taxing lifestyle to better facilitate Torah pursuit. Admittedly, the diminished material existence is crucial for two reasons:
1) As Rabbenu Yona comments, overindulgence in the material world can distract true interest and investment of resources in the area of spiritual pursuit. Adhering to a minimalist lifestyle immunizes the Torah student from the dizzying effects of acquisitiveness and consumption.
2) Quite independent from the stultifying effects of overindulgence, sweeping Torah knowledge can be acquired only through a relentlessness that expresses itself is some degree of personal abandon. Torah, as the approximation of Hashem, is both infinite and at a certain level inscrutable. Cracking this Divine code demands the effort which may introduce a level of personal and material struggle which the mishna describes. As a famous statement of Reish Lakish affirmed (see Berakhot 63), "Torah can be acquired only by a person willing to annihilate himself through its pursuit."
Interestingly enough, the mishna does not evoke a completely ascetic portrait. After all, it promises that this behavior will yield fortune in THIS world and blessing in the world to come. The mishna does not fully inform as to how blessing in this world will emerge from an acceptance of financial hardship. Perhaps it alludes to supernatural assistance in acquiring material needs as reward for financial abandon on behalf of Torah study. Perhaps it sounds a psychological note, encouraging a healthy set of priorities headed by the supremacy of Torah and the willingness to sacrifice financially to respect that supremacy. Once that attitude is achieved, satisfaction and material bliss will ensue even from 'limited' financial opportunities. Clearly, financial bliss is strongly affected by social and psychological factors. A wealthy individual may sense greater monetary urgency that a less-endowed person based on non-rational or at least non-fiscal motives. Through proper prioritization, and the willingness to, and actual experience of, sacrifice for Torah, a person stems the uncontrollable ambition which often creates addictive behavior. In this vein, perhaps, the mishna refers to someone who enjoys material opportunities and voluntarily opts for limited indulgence on behalf of Torah excellence. In this instance, the 'material blessing' is available but may only be relished (psychologically or providentially, through Hashem's hashgacha) through a Torah- centric experience.
Some have offered a different solution to this seeming enigma. By employing the term 'darka' the 'road' to Torah, the mishna might be outlining the lifestyle and sacrifice necessary to acquire Torah. The term derekh refers to a road, and a road leads toward a destination. Typically, once the destination has been reached, the 'laws' of the road no longer apply. Normatively, then, once Torah has been achieved, the stiff sacrifice mentioned in the mishna is no longer obligated, and a healthy degree of material blessing may be realized. Though this position was asserted by no less a personage than the Chafetz Chayim (who, on a personal level, led an extremely meager existence), it invites certain questions. Primary is the issue of determining when 'Torah' has been achieved. Acknowledging its infinity, we would be challenged to determine an 'endpoint' to its achievement. Classically we do not coronate Torah achievers with sufficient Torah title as to excuse their continued effort. In fact Chazal expressed deep moral outrage and almost blasphemous status to one who abandons Torah opportunity based upon a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps the Chafetz Chayim's solution does not allow a complete abandonment of Torah relentlessness, but does permit (though perhaps without advising) a softening of the uncompromising sacrifice which must be exercised during the initial years of Torah acquisition.
Of course, the general theme of the mishna raises important ideals, but ones which could pose certain dangers if they are not properly implemented. Obviously, insufficient attention to personal health may cause physical infirmities which would severely obstruct or limit Torah activity. Beyond the immediate fear of illness, several gemarot speak of the importance of overall physical health and basic mental fitness to assure Torah excellence. The gemara in Masekhet Megilla records that Rava once relocated to a sheltered environment before issuing a halakhic position, since Torah logic requires clarity. Similarly, Rava felt that his logic was clouded by not having imbibed his daily quotient of wine, and Rav Nachman likewise refused to participate in pesak since he had not eaten meat that day. Undoubtedly, peace of mind and personal tranquility are vital ingredients toward Torah excellence. An interesting comment by the Rambam in Hilkhot Talmud Torah (1:12) highlights the area of Talmudic creativity (commonly known as lomdus) as the primary field of Torah endeavor. After mastering Tanakh and Shas, the Rambam expects most of our energies to be invested in creative development of the Talmudic system. Aware that each person has varying levels of aptitude in this area, the Rambam qualifies that lomdus should be attempted 'according to the breadth in his heart (rochav she-yeish be-libo) and personal serenity (yishuv da'ato).' Evidently, personal equanimity and tranquility are crucial toward creative Torah ventures. Indeed, 'peace of mind' is a product of many factors, including interpersonal relations, general worldview, ability to tolerate adversity and misfortune, etc. However, the recipe suggested by our mishna would certainly intensify the challenge of achieving personal tranquility. Ultimately, this mishna constitutes a harsh and forbidding commentary on the severe commitment vital to Torah achievement. It certainly resonates with Reish Lakish's famous maxim which we cited earlier, "Torah can be acquired only by a person willing to annihilate himself through its pursuit" (Berakhot 63b). Though we must demonstrate care in not applying this principle in a self-annihilating fashion, we certainly must acknowledge the type of tenacity and sacrifice which Torah study demands. Indeed, the fear of "burn-out" is valid, but perhaps the greater danger is never beginning to 'burn' in the first place.
For the past few hundred years and especially the past two centuries this image became the hallmark of the yeshiva experience and the 19-20th century yeshiva movement. As the Jewish community was faced with unrelenting penury, yeshivot certainly did not merit significant investments of financial resources. The legions of yeshiva bochurim who labored and studied under almost intolerable conditions looked to this mishna for emotional reinforcement. Recently, as our communal wealth has, barukh Hashem, been restored, yeshivot in particular have benefited from greater communal charity. Perhaps the most notable and, arguably, the first, modern yeshiva built with significantly more comfortable conditions was the yeshiva of Chakhmei Lublin, built in the 1920s in Lublin by Rabbi Meir Shapiro. Intent on affording Torah the same majesty as other cultural projects, Rabbi Meir Shapiro insistently fundraised on the platform of changing our perspective of yeshivot and yeshiva life. This was a clear break with the yeshiva experience of the previous 400 years, but has, in large measure, been responsible for the restoration of Torah pride, and, to a degree, of Torah activity, in recent developments.
As an aside, when the Beit Midrash of our yeshiva was built approximately 30 years ago, someone asked Moshe Moskovic, chairman of the yeshiva's board, why the plans called for vaulted ceilings and other ornate features. After all, this project was about building a yeshiva, not a theater or a stadium! Moshe responded that if a theater deserved such glory and beauty, than certainly Torah deserved no less.