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Self-Made Rabbis

Chapter 2, Mishna 17(b)

"Rabbi Yossi said: Let your fellow's property be as dear to you as your own, prepare yourself to study Torah because it is not an inheritance to you, and let all of your deeds be for the sake of heaven."

Last week we discussed R. Yossi's first statement, that we honor the property of others. As we saw, it is often not difficult to honor another person, but when money matters get involved, the best of relationships may become strained. As the Sages attest, there are many who are more closely attached to their money than their very lives. Human nature is to be very possessive when it comes to our belongings. We must tolerate this quality in others just as we recognize it within ourselves.

We now turn to R. Yossi's second statement -- that Torah is not our inheritance. The simple meaning is that no matter how great a Torah scholar your father and grandfather were, it will not come to you any more easily than to any other Jew. (Perhaps it will be slightly more natural to you -- see Talmud Bava Metziah 85a that after three generations, the Torah "returns to its innkeeper." Nevertheless, you will have to put in your own effort just as much as the next guy) Only through our own toil will we succeed in Torah study. There are no shortcuts to fulfillment.

In truth, in a way the Torah is Israel's inheritance. The verse states, "Moses commanded us [to observe] the Torah; it is the inheritance / heritage ("morasha") of the Congregation of Israel" (Deuteronomy 33:4). The Torah is our national heritage. We all have the right and the obligation to study it -- and to teach it if we are able. No Jewish child or adult should be denied the Torah's teachings. As the Talmud puts it, "Anyone who withholds [the teaching of] a law from a student is as if he steals from the student's father's inheritance, as it says, '...it is an inheritance to the Congregation of Israel'" (Sanhedrin 91b). One who knows Torah and can share it with others -- and refuses -- is quite literally stealing from them their most precious possession.

The Talmud further refers to the Torah as Israel's "betrothed." (This is based upon the similarity between "morasha" (inheritance) above and "me'orasa" (betrothed) -- Pesachim 49b.) Israel is bound to the Torah. It is not only our possession; it is our spouse -- in a bond truly symbolic of our relationship with G-d. And as many of us know all too well, one cannot "stay the same" in a marriage. If the relationship is being developed and enhanced, it is growing. If not, it is deteriorating -- and the couple will slowly drift apart. And this too is the manner in which we relate to the Torah. It is not a free gift, to be used at our discretion -- if we personally find it inspiring. It is an obligation every bit as much as marriage. We either grow together and become one, or we fall apart.

All of this, however, is on the national level. The Torah is ours eternally, no matter how many generations have elapsed since Sinai and how far removed we feel from our heritage. On the personal level, however, this is not so automatic. And this is what R. Yossi warns us here. The Torah may be our national heritage, but it is not simply coming to us. Every individual in every generation must rediscover the Torah -- and he must put in the effort himself. He must form his own bond with its teachings. Our parents and teachers can teach us the words of the Torah, but even the most illustrious of teachers cannot connect us to it. We must take it to heart ourselves. Only we can put in the hours and the devotion, and only we can truly make it ours.

It is a sad commentary on life that the children of Torah scholars very often do not follow in their parents' footsteps. (Maybe they are not worse than the national average, but neither are they very much better.) I would be hesitant to call attention to this phenomenon myself, but the Talmud itself (Nedarim 81a) makes the same observation -- and attempts to discover the reason behind it. Undeniably, as our mishna warns, the scholarship of the parents cannot always be passed on to the children. It is perhaps worthwhile to analyze this phenomenon a little closer.

One reason this may be so is because famous and public-spirited parents, who are selflessly dedicated to their congregations and communities, are simply not sufficiently available to supervise their children's growth and development. They set an excellent example of scholarship and achievement, but it is from a distance.

Another cause might be that such parents set standards for accomplishment far beyond the abilities of the children. Israel has been blessed with great leaders who were able to combine immense scholarship with leadership abilities, caring hearts, and the near-impossible ability of relating to all segments of the nation. For the Jewish nation they have been an invaluable asset; for their children they are a terrifying example of superhuman achievement -- and an example the children may just choose to ignore. (I've seen some such leaders close up. After a herculean day of teaching, instructing and advising, the time they have for their own studying begins at around 1 AM. It also helps when they have the dual-processing ability to listen to someone on the phone while browsing through a volume themselves.)

The reason, however, I believe most relevant to our conversation is that such children often first come to know their parents at the height of their careers. When the children come of age they come to know a father -- and probably a mother -- already in the limelight, already a sought-after and respected public figure, involved in community issues, politics and all the other fun and games of public life. And they never saw the hours upon hours, the days, months, and years their father toiled to become someone deserving of so much regard. And this too creates unrealistic expectations on the part of the children. They may feel such status is coming to them; that they will somehow just naturally grow into it.

And this perhaps is the intent of our mishna's warning. No person is born great. Some perhaps are born with a higher IQ, better attention span, and more potential -- this being the most parents can actually bequeath their children -- but it is just not coming to anyone. There are many paths to greatness, but there is only one road leading there. (Sort of a mixed metaphor there; I think made sense...) Greatness can be achieved only through hard work. There is no easy way out.

Interestingly, the Talmud in the same place (Nedarim 81a) notes that scholarship is often found among the children of the poor. The Talmud writes that one should be "careful" with the children of the poor, "for from them will the Torah come forth." We might be tempted to accept the children of the wealthier families into our schools -- rather than the poor ones who can never pay full tuition anyway. And we may be tempted to marry off our children to the children of wealthier families, in the hope that our children will always live in comfort.

The Sages, however, tell us precisely the opposite. Growing up in the proverbial log cabin, with a little want and deprivation, builds maturity and character. Children from such families learn responsibility. They have to clean up after themselves rather than leaving it for the maid. And they don't grow up expecting preferential treatment. They know that if they want to make something of themselves they will have to do it themselves.

Accomplishment in Torah (usually in contrast to general wisdom) requires not only a high IQ. It equally requires people of character -- people who are willing to make sacrifices and who will humbly and unassumingly accept the yokes of study and responsibility. The poor, in spite of their disabilities (or actually, because of them) are ideal candidates.

Jewish history as well as Scripture confirm this phenomenon. Some of Judaism's greatest leaders and scholars came from the humblest of origins (often beginning their careers as shepherds), ranging from King David to Hillel and Rabbi Akiva. (In the quintessential love story, Rachel, the daughter of a great and wealthy family, proposed to Akiva, the poor shepherd of her father, on condition that he study Torah. She was promptly disowned by her father... until years later, when R. Akiva became leader of the generation (see Talmud Kesuvos 62b-63a).)

Such people were in a way fortunate. They knew it was all up to them. They had no family support, no status, no reputation, no preconceived notions to fall back upon. The more we feel it's coming to us and it's in our blood, the less prepared we will be to face life on its own terms -- which is most certainly the way life will face us. People, however, who know that it all rests on their shoulders -- who know that no one else is going to do it for them or pay their way through -- have a chance. And they might just take life head on, rise to the challenges, and become the leaders Israel so desperately requires.


Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.


 






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