Shiur #13: Vayikra Rabba 3:1 “A Fistful of Torah ... for a Few Shekels More”

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

This class begins our study of Vayikra Rabba parasha 3, which focuses on Vayikra 2:1 and the passage that follows, which discusses the korban mincha, the meal offering.  Unlike parasha 1, this passage deals directly with the details of the sacrifices.  However, in keeping with Vayikra Rabba’s agenda of pursuing themes and teachings that go beyond the technicalities of sacrifices, this parasha will seek to draw moral lessons from the meal offering, the humblest of the sacrifices. 

 

As is usual for Vayikra Rabba, this parasha opens with a petichta.  As we have learned, a petichta is a midrashic form meant to introduce the Torah reading in the synagogue. It interprets the first verse of the reading, what we have called the parasha verse.  Yet, as we have just noted, this parasha focuses on Vayikra 2:1, which is in the middle of Parashat Vayikra and does not begin any Torah reading in our synagogues.  In order to understand this phenomenon of petichta’ot on verses that do not open any of the parshiyot with which we are familiar, we must recall that in the Land of Israel in the time of the Midrash and the Talmud, they did not read the Torah according to an annual cycle as we do today.  Rather, they completed reading the Torah only once in three years.  As such, their parshiyot were much shorter and more numerous.  The existence of petichta’ot on particular verses may be evidence that those verses were the beginning of a weekly Torah reading in the Land of Israel.

 

As is often the case, the petichta verse which opens the petichta comes from what is known as the biblical wisdom literature, in this case Kohelet.  Wisdom literature generally teaches broad, universal lessons.  In contrast, the stories and laws of the Torah tend to focus on specific events or requirements.  The petichta serves to bring these two worlds into dialogue with each other.  The petichta verse provides a broader message to be gleaned from the parasha verse.  Conversely, the parasha verse provides a concrete example of the broader lesson of the petichta verse.

 

In this case the petichta begins with Kohelet 4:6:

 

            Better is a handful of quietness

than both hands full of labor and pursuit of the wind.

 

This verse teaches a lesson similar to the English proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Namely, things which a person has actually accomplished are worth far more than things that one merely hopes to achieve.  We should note that the word amal here is best translated not simply as “labor”, but as “fruitless labor.” There is no point in seeking out things that are as unachievable as pursuing the wind. 

 

The midrash opens its comments on this verse with a discussion of the verse’s application to the world of Torah study:

 

Better is he who studies two sedarim and is conversant with them,

than he who learns halakhot and is not conversant with them,

but ‘It is the desire of the spirit’:

namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed an adept at halakha

 

Better is he who studies halakhot and is conversant with them

than he who studies halakhot and middot and is not conversant with them

but, ‘It is the desire of the spirit’:

namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed an adept at middot

 

Better is he who studies halakhot and middot, and is conversant with them,

than he who studies halakhot and middot and Talmud, and is not     conversant with them,

but ‘It is the desire of the spirit’:

namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed an adept at the Law.

 

This passage is an example of the rabbis’ use of set literary forms.  It is like a poem consisting of three parallel stanzas each of which follows the same pattern:

 

Better is he who studies X

and is conversant with them,

than he who studies Y

and is not conversant with them,

but ‘It is the desire of the spirit’:

namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed an adept at Z.

 

Each time, the midrash states that it is better to have mastered a lesser body of Torah, than to have attempted to study a greater body of material without actually achieving mastery.  I have left the terms for the various bodies of Torah, “sedarim,” “halakhot,” “middot” and “Talmud” un-translated, because I am not sure exactly what they mean.  Clearly, however, they represent an ascending scale of types of Torah and Torah study, with “sedarim” and “halakhot” the most basic level of study and “Talmud” the most advanced.  In all likelihood, “halakhot” refers to mishnayot or similar such material such as beraitot.  The first stanza thus states that is better to master only two of the six sedarim of mishnayot than to study all six but never really gain mastery of the material. 

 

In the second stanza, the term middot probably refers to methods for interpreting the Torah as in the phrase “middot she-hatorah nidreshet bahem.”  Used in this context, it would seem to be another term for midrash.  The second stanza would thus state that it is better to master “halakhot” without understanding how the laws derive from the Bible than to study both the laws and their derivations but not really to have a full knowledge or understanding of the material. 

 

Finally in the third stanza the term “Talmud” probably refers to the dialectical analysis of the laws.  Thus, the midrash states that it is better to master the details of the halakha and the halakhic midrashim, than to move on to more advanced halakhic analysis without having achieved this mastery.

 

This passage thus establishes a hierarchy of Torah study from the most basic material to the most advanced.  It is preferable to achieve mastery over a lower level than to jump ahead to a higher level.  This reflects the lesson of the petichta verse: It is better to do that which is achievable than to try to accomplish something that is beyond you.

 

There is one more aspect of this section which we have not yet dealt with.  Each stanza ends with the lines:

 

but ‘It is the desire of the spirit’:

            namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed an adept at Z.

 

Previously, we translated the term re’ut ru’ach as “pursuit of the wind” which we argued was essentially synonymous with the previous term amal, “fruitless labors.”  The midrash here, however, understands this phrase as an independent clause that we have translated as “desire of the spirit.”  What causes people to overreach, to attempt to achieve things that are beyond them?  It is the inner desire for public recognition.  People are driven by the desire to be known for their deeds and their accomplishments.  In the case of Torah study, people progress to levels of study for which they are not yet prepared because they want the renown of someone who has studied a high level of material.  They seek out the title of a master of halakhot, or middot or of Talmud.  This striving after titles is misguided.  It leads to superficial study rather than real knowledge. 

 

The petichta now embarks on a new set of interpretations of the petichta verse.  These interpretations relate not to the world of Torah study but to that of business:

 

Better is he who has ten gold pieces of his own, and engages in business and earns a livelihood with them,

than he who goes and borrows on interest.

By way of an adage they say:

'He who borrows on interest loses that which is his,

and also that which is not his,'

which is but ‘the desire of the spirit’:

namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed a business man.

 

Better is he who goes and works and gives charity of that which is his own,

than he who goes and robs or takes by violence and gives charity of that belonging to others.

By way of an adage they say:

'She commits adultery for apples, and distributes them among the sick,'

which is but ‘the desire of the spirit’:

namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed a charitable man.

 

Better is he who has a garden and fertilizes it and hoes it and earns his livelihood out of it,

than he who takes gardens from others on terms of half profits.

By way of an adage they say:

‘One who rents one garden eats birds, one who rents many gardens, the birds eat him,’

which is but ‘the desire of the spirit’:

namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed a landowner.

 

This section is also divided into three parts, each of which follows the same pattern:

 

Better is he who…

than he…

by way of an adage they say:…

which is but ’The desire of the spirit’:

namely, it is his ambition to be acclaimed a X.

 

This pattern is very similar to the previous one, the main difference being that each teaching is illustrated by an adage or a popular saying.  Each section praises a different example of a person living within his means rather than overreaching and attempting to get more than his lot.  Those who overreach, do so out of a desire to gain renown within the community.  The lesson is thus similar to the previous section: live within your means/abilities.  The desire for more is the result of a superficial pursuit of renown and glory rather than sensible pursuit of knowledge and wealth.

 

The first stanza of this section deals with a person’s investment strategies.  One possibility is to invest only the cash that one has and make a profit from it.  The other possibility is to try and increase one’s gains by borrowing at interest and investing that money as well.  This has the potential to generate greater returns but it also carries greater risk.  The midrash favors the first, more conservative strategy.  This follows from the lesson of the petichta verse which favors working with that which one has rather than attempting to get things that are not immediately available.

 

The midrash now quotes a popular proverb which takes the case against borrowing in order to invest one step further.  The proverb states, “He who borrows on interest loses that which is his, and also that which is not his.” Borrowing on interest is seen as an inherently losing proposition.  Chances are that one will end up defaulting on the loan, causing a loss to borrower and lender alike.  The midrash’s aversion to borrowing on interest may go even further than mere practicality.  The Torah prohibits borrowing on interest, just as it prohibits lending on interest.

 

As in the case of Torah study, the midrash blames overreaching on the desire for reputation.  Just as people study areas of Torah without achieving mastery, out of a desire to have a reputation as an accomplished Torah scholar, so, too, people go into debt out of a desire not simply for money, but to be known as a successful business person. 

 

The next stanza deals, not with the desire to be rich and successful per se, but the desire to be known as a benefactor of the poor.  This stanza contrasts a person who gives charity out of his own limited means to a person who robs and steals in order to have a lot of money to give away.  Once again, we have a case of a person living within their means compared to someone who overreaches in order to get more than he has coming to him.  Here, however, the problem is not simply fiscal, it is moral.  Stealing in order to give charity is the height of hypocrisy.  The proverb amplifies the moral failure of the person who steals in order to give charity: “She commits adultery for apples, and distributes them among the sick.” By citing this proverb the midrash compares the thief to an adulteress.   

 

In the final stanza, the midrash moves on to consider the proper course in real estate development.  Once again, we have two possibilities, one conservative and one aggressive, which correspond to the “handful of quietness” and “both hands full of (fruitless) labor” respectively.  The conservative possibility is, once again, to attempt to make a living using the resources one has.  In this case, working one’s ancestral plot of land oneself.  As in the first stanza, the aggressive approach involves trying to use the resources of others for one’s own profit.  This time it involves buying up other fields and engaging sharecroppers to work the land.  There is certainly nothing unethical or forbidden about this practice, unlike in the previous cases of borrowing on interest and outright theft.  It seems that the rabbis simply see this as a bad investment strategy.  This shows the difference between the rabbis’ views of the accumulation of wealth and modern capitalist notions.  For the rabbis, schemes to get rich are viewed with great suspicion.  They are presumed to more likely result in impoverishment than in riches.  In this case, such a scenario is described in the proverb, “One who rents one garden eats birds, one who rents many gardens, the birds eat him.”  In other words, excessive wealth is seen as a burden.  It comes with responsibilities and liabilities that ultimately outweigh any of its benefits.  Far better to make do with what one has than to attempt to overreach and end up worse off than one was before.

 

This ends the first major section of the petichta.  It consists of six parallel stanzas, each of which gives an illustration of the petichta verse from Kohelet: “Better is a handful of quietness than both hands full of labor and pursuit of the wind.” The first three stanzas apply the verse to cases of Torah study while the second three deal with cases involving commerce.  Taken together, they represent a complete worldview that encompasses what the rabbis saw as the two critical aspects of human existence, Torah and avoda (earning a living).  In both instances, the rabbis emphasize the need to live within one’s own resources.  In the case of Torah, one should not advance to higher levels of Torah study until one has mastered the previous level.  Some people may lack the ability to rise to higher levels and they must be satisfied with their accomplishments at lower levels.  Similarly, a person should make a living with the resources that he legitimately has, in cash, in goods or in real estate.  One should not use other means, licit or otherwise, to leverage the resources of others to one’s own benefit. 

 

In today’s climate, such cautious economic advice may seem quite wise.  Nevertheless, the rabbis’ apparent aversion to attempts to accumulate wealth, not simply on moral grounds, but on economic grounds as well, conflicts with a modern capitalist mentality, which emphasizes the need for initiative and risk-taking in ensuring economic health.  It is always important to take note of the differences between the rabbinic worldview and contemporary ones.  I do not know how the rabbis’ views on this matter relate to economic notions current in the ancient world, but this issue is certainly worthy of study.  It has the potential to illuminate the socio-economic position of the rabbis, a question that remains unresolved among historians.

 

Interestingly, the rabbis do not see the temptation to live beyond one’s means as simply resulting from a desire for wealth and knowledge.  Rather, in all of the cases, the midrash attributes such overreaching behavior to a desire for status.  Each time, the person who pursues two fistfuls of futility does so out of ‘the desire of the spirit’ - a desire to attain a certain reputation within his community.  This reflects a fundamental insight of the rabbis into human nature.  The most damaging human desire is not the desire for wealth or knowledge.  What most often brings people’s downfall is their need for public acclamation.  The most dangerous overreaching is not in intellectual or monetary matters.  Rather, it involves the attempt to achieve a social status that is beyond one’s God-given resources.