By Rabbi Y. Dov Krakowski, Shabbos Bechukosai, ירושלים עיה”ק תו”ת, Avos (Kinyan Hatorah 4) 6, 4:
Pirkei Avos has five perakim. In most printed editions there is a sixth perek that really consists of beraisos and is an appendage to Pirkei Avos. Various reasons are given as to why this perek of beraisos is annexed on to Pirkei Avos. It is included in the weekly cycle of Pirkei Avos that is learned throughout the summer Shabbosos. Beraisos are teachings from the mishnaic era. The following is an explanation of the fourth beraisa in this perek of beraisos.
In this beraisa Reb Meir tells us that the “Torah lifestyle” is a simple and enduring one. Reb Meir says that it is a regimen of eating and drinking moderately, of minimal and simple sustenance, coupled with sleeping in modest conditions (such as on the floor for lack of having a proper bed) and enduring pain. Reb Meir then tells us that one who follows this “Torah lifestyle” is admirable in this world and fortunate in the world to come. While this may well be an appropriate ending for a beraisa Reb Meir doesn’t stop there. He continues and adds that one should not seek recognition and honor for oneself. In what seems something of a digression, Reb Meir then says that one should invest more effort in fulfilling Mitzvos than in being a scholar. He then further adds that one should not covet the table of noblemen because a Torah scholar’s is greater than theirs and the crown of a Torah scholar is greater than that of a nobleman. Reb Meir finishes by saying that Hashem is trustworthy to compensate the Torah scholars adequately.
This beraisa raises several questions: 1) Is Torah really supposed to be a harrowing experience? 2) The first and last parts of the beraisa form a continuous flow. Why does Reb Meir interject after saying that Torah is arduous, that it is admirable and eventually worthwhile, before telling us not to seek glory through Torah? 3) Why does he again interrupt his train of thought by saying that we should put more effort into being Torah observers than in becoming Torah scholars? The beraisa would flow more smoothly without these two interruptions.
In the Vilna Shas this perek is printed with a commentary that is attributed to Rashi. This commentary points out that one should not interpret Reb Meir as saying that one should not eat the food that one has in order to acquire Torah. It is rather telling us that one who wishes to acquire Torah should anticipate such a lifestyle. With this in mind let us try to better analyze the beraisa.
Reb Meir tells us that Torah study entails being prepared to endure unpleasantness. He then tells us that if we accept the Torah lifestyle we are admirable in this world and fortunate in the world to come. If a Torah lifestyle is replete with suffering, then even if one who subscribes to it will be fortunate in the world to come they certainly aren’t “fortunate” in this world. Reb Meir seemingly acknowledges this very point. He is therefore faced with a challenge to make a Torah lifestyle appealing, or at least to rationalize it. He does so in two steps. He first offers comfort by saying that it is admirable even while enduring deprivation. He then not only lessens the imminent fear of such an unpleasant way of life but offers encouragement. He explains that there is eventual compensation for it in the world to come. It is this ultimate compensation that seems to be what makes the Torah way of life worth living.
It is clear from the commentaries that one does not need to adopt such a lifestyle in order to live a vibrant Torah life. Rather, one must be ready to embrace a lifestyle of devotion. No one would willingly take upon oneself even the possibility of being destitute as a way of life. However, if one understands that there is more to life than immediate gratification, one may then be willing to endure temporarily some deprivation for the sake of eternal enjoyment.
This is precisely Reb Meir’s point. He is telling us that one can be ultimately more prosperous by living the “Torah way” than by seeking instant gratification. One who is willing to live a life of utter devotion is certainly laudable. It is at this point that Reb Meir warns against getting lost in one’s own piety by expecting recognition. This too is something temporary and it blinds one from focusing on the Torah. It is likely to lead one instead to concentrate on the accessories to Torah rather than on the Torah itself. Likewise Reb Meir is advising us to focus more on practicing Mitzvos than on the intellectual stimulation involved in Torah study. This is because one who gets caught up in the cerebral aspects of Torah can accidentally turn Torah into a mere intellectual exercise. As a conclusion to this perspective Reb Meir tells us not to covet even the nobility of a nobleman because even the glory of the highest aristocrat pales in comparison to the glory that Hashem will bestow upon the Torah scholar.
This perek of beraisos started with extremely encouraging words regarding Torah learning. The idea of this particular beraisa is clear. Talmud Torah is amazing and abounds with good. Nonetheless, a life of Torah is a long term commitment. A “Torah lifestyle” is one that can only be appreciated by one who is willing to devote oneself to it.
There is one more fundamental point that can be gained after learning this beraisa. In this beraisa Reb Meir is essentially telling us that in a “Torah lifestyle” there is nothing else one can find or seek other than Torah. It would seem this is the reason that one must be willing to embrace an enduring way of life in order to live a “Torah lifestyle”. One may end up being rich but if one wishes or pursues richness they will end up being a Torah scholar. In order to become a full fledged Torah scholar it must be someone’s only focus.