July 23, 2024
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How We Rise Up — The Greatness of Torah Learning

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה.
וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ…וּמְגַדַּלְתּוֹ וּמְרוֹמַמְתּוֹ עַל כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים (ו:א)
כָל מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה הֲרֵי זֶה מִתְעַלֶּה (ו:ב)
 גדולה תורה שהיא נותנת חיים לעשיה בעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וּבָעוֹלָם הַבָּא (ו:ז)

Rabbi Meir said, Whoever occupies himself with Torah for its own sake, merits many things; furthermore, he is worth that the whole world shall have been created because of him…and [the Torah] makes him great and exalts him above all things. (Avot 6:1)

Anyone who occupies himself with the study of Torah becomes elevated… (Avot 6:2)

Great is Torah, for it gives those who practice it life in this world and in the World to Come. (Avot 6:7)

Kinyan Torah

Masechet Avot originally consisted of five perakim. In order to accommodate the study of Pirkei Avot on the sixth Shabbat between Pesach and Shavuot, a sixth perek was added to the Mesechet. As that Shabbat (generally) falls out right before Shavuot, the sixth perek helps us prepare for the Chag by focusing on Torah learning. This perek is called “Kinyan Torah” because it refers to two aspects of Torah acquisition: how we acquire Torah and the great value(s) we acquire along with it.1

Grants Life

Torah learning benefits the learner in both this world and beyond. Mishnah Zayin formulates the point this way: “Torah is great, for it grants life in this world and the next.”

The Next World

Considering Torah learning’s status as a central mitzvah, we easily understand how it earns one life in the next world. Mishnah Yud tells of Rebbi Yosi Ben Kisma’s rejection of a substantial monetary offer aimed at convincing him to move to a city lacking a strong Torah presence. Rebbi Yosi explained his refusal with the fact that it is only (the reward for) Torah learning and good deeds (and not gold and silver) that we take with us to the next world. Many things seem valuable in this world. When choosing how to live our lives, we should focus on what has eternal value.

This World

The mishnah’s assertion that Torah learning grants life in this world as well is a greater chiddush. Rebbi Akiva reinforced this point in his response to those who questioned his teaching of Torah despite the Roman prohibition against doing so. Rebbi Akiva compared a Jew’s need for Torah learning to a fish’s dependency on water.2 Torah is not just an enhancer of life; it is a condition for it. Though many people physically survive without learning Torah, their lives lack true meaning.3

Making the Whole World Worthwhile

Beyond meaningful life itself, Mishnah Aleph lists many additional benefits earned through Torah learning. Before listing these benefits, Rebbe Meir emphasizes that a person learning Torah also makes the existence of the entire world worthwhile.

Mesechet Avot began with Shimon Hatzadik’s assertion that the world exists for the purpose of Torah learning (as well as avodah and gemilut chasadim). Rebbe Meir takes this notion a significant step further by portraying even a single person’s Torah learning as making the whole world worthwhile!

The Greatest and Highest Life

Mishnah Aleph concludes its list of benefits by declaring that Torah learning makes one “greater” and “higher”4 than all creations. Torah learning is “great” not just because it grants life (Mishnah Zayin), but also because it makes those who learn it “greater.”5

The Gemara in Megilla (16b) further develops the “greater” aspect of Torah learning by asserting that it is “greater” than kibud av v’eim, building the Beit Hamikdash, and even saving a life. Though saving a life takes priority over Torah learning, the act of learning is of greater value because it helps people develop into greater people.

As we saw, Mishnah Aleph describes Torah as also raising the student above other creations. Mishnah Bet adds a second aspect by explaining that Torah learning elevates people (not just relative to other creatures, but also) to a higher (in fact the highest) version of themselves.

This second dimension is the backdrop to the way Rav Yosef reflected on his Torah learning. The Gemara6 tells us that, when asked about his custom to celebrate Shavuot by eating a special meat sandwich, Rav Yosef explained that without Torah learning, he would have amounted to no more than ‘the average Joe (Yosef).’

Rashi’s formulation of Rav Yosef’s words (“if not for the days I learned Torah and elevated myself…”) links it to our mishnah’s focus on Torah as elevating. Though the mitzvot and good deeds we perform earn us reward, only Torah learning develops us in a way that elevates and distinguishes us.

To summarize, Avot’s sixth perek emphasizes the great significance of Torah learning which grants life in both this world and the next and also helps one achieve greatness and reach the highest level of his potential growth.

May these mishnayot prepare us for Shavuot by helping us appreciate and properly celebrate Matan Torah and by inspiring us to maximize future Torah learning opportunities.

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

1 The perek includes two long lists. The first mishnah relates to what we acquire, and the sixth mishnah lists the means needed in order to do so.

2 Talmud Bavli, Berachot 61b. See also Avodah Zarah 3b, which quotes Shmuel who derived this idea from a pasuk in Chavakuk. See also Berachot 18a, Pesachim 49b, Makot 10a, and Mishlei 13:14 with the Gr”a.

3 Understandably, the Gemara (ibid) juxtaposes this statement of Rebbi Akiva to his interpretation of “b’chol nafshecha” as meaning even if Hashem takes one’s life, we are still obligated to love Him and dedicate ourselves to Him. Since Torah is a condition for true life, one ought to sacrifice his life for its observance.

4 Note that Mishnah Aleph presents the elevation as relative to the rest of creation, while Mishneh Bet describes the elevation as objective to the person learning.

5 See Mishnah Vav, which also uses the phrase “Gadol Torah” to introduce the long list of midot needed to master it.

6 Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 68b. See Rashi there.

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