July 23, 2024
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רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן אוֹמֵר, כָּל הַמְקַיֵּם  אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מֵעֹנִי, סוֹפוֹ לְקַיְּמָהּ מֵעשֶׁר.
וְכָל הַמְבַטֵּל אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מֵעשֶׁר, סוֹפוֹ לְבַטְּלָהּ מֵעֹנִי: (אבות ד:ט)

Though we aim to observe mitzvot properly and maximize our Torah learning, the realities of life often make this challenging. Rebbi Yonatan (Avot 4:9) relates to one of these realities—poverty —and asserts that anyone who fulfills the Torah in a state of poverty will eventually fulfill it in a state of wealth. (Avot D’Rebbi Natan 35:1 explains that the term “fulfill the Torah” refers to Torah learning in particular. This would make this mishna a natural continuation of the previous ones.)

Mei’oni: Poverty’s Potential

The meforshim debate how poverty (potentially) impacts Torah fulfillment. Most meforshim (Rabbeinu Yonah, Meiri, Rabbeinu Bachya, Machzor Vitri) understand that poverty makes fulfillment more difficult. It generates discomfort, insecurity and instability, which impair one’s ability to focus on Torah learning and spiritual growth. Rebbi Yonatan inspires the poor to overcome these challenges by promising them wealth as a future reward.

The problem with this interpretation is that Rebbi Yonatan’s promise is not always evident: many of those who live Torah lives remain impoverished. How can Rebbi Yonatan claim that “all those who fulfill in poverty” are rewarded with wealth, if so many are not? (See Alshich and Maharal who ask this.)

For this reason, other meforshim explain the mishna differently. Their explanation begins with a careful reading of Rebbi Yonatan’s words. Rebbi Yonatan does not refer to those who fulfill “b’oni—in a state of poverty,” but “mei’oni—through poverty.” Poverty is not just the state within which we fulfill. It should also facilitate better fulfillment. (Ruach Chaim to Avot 4:9 elaborates this further.)

Avot 2:7 teaches that “the more we own, the more we worry.” Poverty allows the living of a simpler life. Having less money, property and investments to manage affords us more time for avodat Hashem. This is why Avot 6:4 describes the Torah lifestyle as “eating bread with salt, rationing water and sleeping on the ground.” A Torah life focuses on developing the spiritual—not the physical—side of our existence.

Rebbi Yochanan is making a profound statement about poverty. It is not just a challenge to overcome. It should actually assist fulfillment; it is an opportunity to take advantage of.

Sofo L’kayma Mei’osher: Ultimate Riches

This understanding of Rebbi Yonatan’s first words facilitates a deeper understanding of his next ones: “One who fulfills Torah mei’oni, will eventually be mekayem mei’osher—fulfill with wealth.” How does fulfillment mei’oni lead to kiyum mei’osher?

Many meforshim (see Rashbatz) understand the “osher” as referring to a heavenly reward. As mentioned previously, the difficulty with this interpretation is that the righteous are not always rewarded with wealth.

The Alshich, therefore, explains the mishna differently. The literal meaning of the word “sofo—ends up” presents the “osher” as a natural implication (not a reward). Though fulfillment of mei’oni does not necessarily generate a heavenly reward of wealth, it does prepare us to succeed in such a state. (See, for example, Mishnah Avot 2:2, Sanhedrin 8:5-6; Bavli Nedarim 20a; Kohelet Rabbah 7:16.)

Commitment to Torah in a state of poverty hinges on the ability to focus on what is truly important and helps us develop positive personality traits such as pashtut (simplicity), humility and persistence. This personal development helps people maintain focus and continue serving Hashem properly, even once they become wealthy. Rav Chaim Volozhin adds that recognizing that poverty is meant to help us grow earns one enhanced reward. Rebbi Yonatan does not promise wealth. He explains what prepares us to live correctly once we receive it. Living life properly when poor, enables one to do so when wealthy as well.

Taking Advantage of Our Osher

In the second half of the mishna, Rebbi Yonatan presents the reverse equation: “One who is mevatel Torah mei’osher—negligent about Torah in a state of wealth” will be “mevatel Torah mei’oni—negligent about Torah in a state of poverty.” We are meant to use the osher that Hashem gives us to strengthen and enhance our avodat Hashem. One who does not will have the osher taken away from him (Devarim 28:47 and Rashi.) The “sofo” in this part of the mishna refers to a punishment, not a natural implication. (See, for example, Sefat Emet to Devarim, Ki Tavo 5643.) Presumably, the word is used here to parallel the usage in the first part of the mishnah.

What is the osher that we are expected to use properly? The simple translation of the word “osher” is “wealth.” Hashem blesses us with wealth and resources that make our lives easier and more comfortable. We should show our appreciation for these gifts by using them to increase our commitment to avodat Hashem.

This message is particularly relevant to our generation. Hashem has blessed us with significant wealth, comfort and opportunities. Machines work for us and save us travel time, electricity extends our days and the internet allows for quick communication and easy access to meaningful content everywhere at any moment. We need to make sure to devote this “newfound” time and energy to Torah learning and fulfillment.

The Ohr Hachayim explains that this is how the mon (manna) tested the readiness of the Jewish people for kabbalat haTorah (Shemot 16:4). Ready-made mon from heaven freed them from the need to devote time and energy to working and preparing food. Hashem wanted to see if they would use this time for meaningful pursuits. If they did, it would show that they were ready to take advantage of the opportunity to learn Torah.

Though we do not have mon, modern technology has freed us from backbreaking labor and afforded us much free time. We, too, need to make sure that we devote our time and energy to Torah learning and fulfillment. If we do, Hashem has good reason to continue blessing us with this “wealth.”

In addition to wealth, we are blessed with enobling abilities and enabling circumstances. (See the Tiferet Yisrael and Midrash Shmuel who interpret “osher” as ability, as opposed to wealth.) Our intellectual capacity, educational background and social setting offer the opportunity to think, grow and have a meaningful impact. These gifts are much more important than money and property. This is why the Gemara (Nedarim 41a) teaches that “ein ani ela b’deah—(true) poverty is (only) the lack of intelligence.” True poverty is the inability to function in a meaningful way; true wealth is the capacity to do so.

Each of us are meant to use the capabilities and opportunities Hashem blesses us with, in order to serve Him. We should use our intellectual ability to study and appreciate Torah—as deeply as possible—and use our skills to serve Hashem to the best of our ability.

If we use the resources and abilities Hashem has granted us for the right purposes, He blesses us with more. If we do not, He (chas v’shalom) takes them from us (Chovot Halevavot Sha’ar Cheshbon Hanefesh, perek 3).

Challenges and Opportunities

Both poverty and wealth pose challenges; in Mishlei (30:8), Shlomo requests that Hashem makes him neither. Neither challenge is insurmountable. The Gemara (Yoma 35b) teaches that after we die, we are asked why we failed to maximize our opportunities for Torah learning. Those who were poor or wealthy each use their challenging circumstances to justify their behavior. The heavenly court responds by pointing to poor and rich people (Hillel and Rebbi Elazar ben Charsum, respectively) who found ways to devote themselves to Torah learning. If there is a will, there is a way.

Poverty and wealth also offer opportunities. Wealth makes life easier, and poverty helps us develop healthy character traits. We are meant to take advantage of whichever opportunities we are offered.

May we realize that we have the ability to overcome whatever challenges Hashem places in our path, and, therefore, take advantage of the opportunities Hashem offers us through our unique life circumstances. May doing so allow us to merit Hashem’s continued and increased blessings.

*Summarized by Rafi Davis


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.

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