Pirkei Avos

Is Torah a Burden? Part II

Chapter 6, Mishna 2(b)

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben (son of) Levi said, on every day a heavenly voice emanates from Mount Horeb, announcing: ‘Woe to them, the people, because of the affront to the Torah.’ For anyone who does not study is called ‘rebuked,’ as the verse says ‘As a golden ring in a swine’s snout, so too is a beautiful woman who has turned from sound reason’ (Proverbs 11:22). It also says, ‘And the tablets were the handiwork of G-d, and the writing was G-d’s writing engraved on the tablets’ (Exodus 32:16). Do not read ‘charoos’ (engraved), rather ‘chairoos’ (free). For you will not find a freer person than one who is involved in the study of Torah. And all those who study Torah are uplifted, as it states, ‘From Matanah [the Israelites traveled to] Nachaliel, and from Nachaliel [to] Bamos’ (Numbers 21:19).”

Last week we discussed the comparison between one who does not study Torah to — in the words of King Solomon — a swine with a golden ring in its snout. As we explained, one who is not involved in Torah study is not sublimating the animal within him. His body and desires reign supreme, possibly even dragging his human intellect down as well, occupying it with thoughts of deviousness and lust, as inappreciatively as a pig dragging along a ring while wallowing in the garbage.

We asked that this actually seems a little too damning. We observed that our mishna does not seem to be talking about sinners per se, only people who are not studying sufficiently. If so, we are dealing with Torah-observant Jews, who do fulfill the mitzvos (commandments). If so, are they really basically animals? Doesn’t a religious lifestyle sanctify and uplift — or at least keep one out of serious trouble? Perhaps Torah study uplifts like no other mitzvah, but is someone with mitzvos alone really no better than a pig?

There is a very important distinction here — one which could make all the difference in how we relate to Judaism. There are two levels on which we can view the mitzvos — both of them valid in their own way. On the one hand the mitzvos give our lives positive structure and direction. They “force” us, so to speak, to live healthy lifestyles. Don’t become a workaholic: rest on the Sabbath. Don’t go off the deep end: marry and raise a family. Be faithful to your spouse, pray daily, get up on time, take care of your health (see Deuteronomy 4:15), give charity, etc. Most of the laws of the Torah are simply nice ways to live, giving us disciplined, but essentially normal, contented lives. On a deeper level as well, the mitzvos serve to perfect or “fix” our souls and the spiritual spheres around us.

Thus, mitzvah observance, apart from earning us reward in the World to Come, is actually the surest path to physical, spiritual, and domestic contentment — something I think we could challenge other religions and philosophies to match (all of them newer imitations, none equaling the original (as often the case)).

The above is completely valid and is something one who observes the mitzvos cannot help but appreciate. There is, however, a downside. One can easily fall in love with a “Torah lifestyle” — and just as easily forget why he is adhering to one. We can easily view our healthy and disciplined lives as just a wonderful way to live in this world — a true and steady rudder guiding us through the stress and confusion of society and life. But we will still be living in this world alone. We will see mitzvah-observance as nothing more than a reliable guide for living in this world — which to an extent it is — and fail to see beyond. And our interests and drives may be entirely this-worldly: our careers, our hobbies, our lusts. None of these are entirely forbidden by the Torah, even if they are somewhat restricted. We all accept that our lives require some discipline and structure. But for the most part, we will be drawn — to the extent the Torah allows — after the animal within.

Now enters Torah study — and the true purpose of the Torah lifestyle. A Torah lifestyle admittedly offers contentment in this world. If it really is G-d’s perfect prescription for life, we would expect the physical plane to fit in just as well as the spiritual. However, that is not the true reason G-d gave us the Torah. G-d did not give Israel the Torah in order that we live well or even piously in this world. It is so that we connect to G-d in the next one.

As we’ve discussed in past weeks, the Torah enables us to build a relationship with G-d Himself, preparing ourselves for the ultimate bliss of the World to Come. By studying Torah and observing the mitzvos we condition ourselves for godliness, making ourselves more spiritual people capable of relating to G-d in the World to Come. The mitzvos themselves condition us to an extent, but as we explained, we may observe every mitzvah religiously — we may keep the letter of the law — but basically be creatures of this world. Torah study, however, brings us directly before G-d. We contemplate and appreciate G-d’s wisdom and values, transforming ourselves into moral and spiritual human beings. Ultimately, our “swine” –the beast within — becomes transformed — into a human being in the image of G-d.

We can now understand the continuation of our mishna — that there is no one freer than the one who studies Torah. A person who merely observes the mitzvos may essentially still be a pig– a creature of this world who is basically just forced to behave by a Torah lifestyle. He will still live in this world and for this world to the extent the Torah allows. He may even view the mitzvos as a crushing burden, prohibiting much of what the animal within desires. He may be observant, but he is far from “free”.

Torah study, however, transforms us into beings in the image of G-d — ones which don’t *want* to wallow in the dirt like swine. We will understand and appreciate G-d’s wisdom and commandments. We will want to fulfill G-d’s will and get closer to Him. Whereas the mitzvah observer, whenever the Torah is not looking (or whenever a loophole can be found) will run back to the mud, the Torah student will desire the pleasures of the spirit. He will not be plagued with the inner struggle and turmoil less “human” people experience.