June 3, 2024
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The Pain, the Effort and the Process

בֶּן הֵא הֵא אוֹמֵר, לְפוּם צַעֲרָא אגרא: (אבות ה:כג)

The Conclusion

Because Masechet Avot initially consisted of five perakim, the fifth perek’s last words are also the masechet’s (original) last words and are, therefore, especially important. Avot’s last words are a three-word statement from Ben Hei Hei:“L’fum tzaara, agra, Reward is proportional to the pain (experienced in the process) (Avot 5:23).”

This important point lies at the heart of avodat Hashem. At the Pesach Seder, the Rasha (wicked son) asks his father, “Mah ha’avodah ha’zot lachem, What does this work mean to you?” (Pesach Haggadah, Maggid: Arba Banim). The Yerushalmi in Pesachim 10:4 has a slightly different version of the question, in which the asha expresses his frustration with the difficulty of avodas Hashem:“Mah ha’torach ha’zeh, Why is Judaism such a tircha, a burden?” Ben Hei Hei answers Rasha’s question by explaining that the gain is proportional to the pain. Hashem makes serving Him challenging so that the reward will be commensurate.


Fighting the Good Fight

What type of service was Ben Hei Hei referring to?

The Yalkut Me’am Loez saw the topic as the fulfillment of mitzvot and ethical principles. He explains that Ben Hei Hei addresses those frustrated with their inability to properly fulfill the mitzvot and Avot’s many dictates. He raises our spirits by reminding us that our reward hinges on our effort, not on the degree of our success.

For this reason, the Rambam (Shemonah Perakim 6) saw one who needs to overcome his yetzer hara (evil inclination) to fulfill mitzvot and avoid aveirot as greater than the chassid who no longer desires sin, as opposed to the “philosophers” who prefer the chassid—because the one who struggles faces greater challenges receives more reward.

This is how the Arizal explained the significance of the avodat Hashem of later generations of Jews. Being far removed from the Sinaitic revelation and thus on a much lower level than previous generations, Rav Chaim Vital (the Arizal’s main talmid) wondered what significance our lowly actions could possibly have. The Arizal answered that being on a lower level means that our mitzvah fulfillment is a greater challenge and, therefore, much more significant.

People are often disillusioned by their failures and the apparent strength of their yetzer hara. Instead, we should appreciate how overcoming challenges adds significance to our successes. Sefer HaTanya (Perek 27) adds that we should realize that our challenges may be why we were created—not for our successes, but for our struggles.


The Process of Torah Learning

Many apply Ben Hei Hei’s words to Torah learning. Rabbeinu Yonah connects our Mishna to Ben Bag Bag’s directive in the previous Mishna: “Hafoch bah va’hafoch bah—Continue turning over the Torah (Avot 5:22).” Even if one has learned all (they think) there is to learn from a particular Torah passage, it pays to continue studying it because we are rewarded for our effort, not just for the knowledge.

We emphasize this point when making a siyum: “Anu ameilim v’heim ameilim. Anu ameilim u’mekablim sachar; heim ameilim v’einam mekablim sachar.” We contrast the efforts we invest in Torah learning with those others invest in alternative endeavors. We receive reward; they do not.

The Chofetz Chaim asked the obvious question. Are others not rewarded for their efforts? Aren’t all people paid for their work? The Chofetz Chaim explained that people are generally paid for the results of their efforts. If their efforts are fruitful, they get paid; if not, they are left empty-handed. The mitzvah of talmud Torah is unique in that Hashem rewards for the effort itself. We receive sechar for the time and energy we devote to Torah learning, even if we do not successfully understand or retain the knowledge.

These two understandings of Ben Hei Hei’s statement are, of course, not mutually exclusive. His words apply equally to rewards received for both Torah learning and mitzvah fulfillment. The reward for both is proportional to the tza’ar.


No Pain, No Gain?

What does Ben Hei Hei mean by the word tza’ar? What type of tza’ar is the reward proportional to?

Many interpret the word tza’ar in the literal sense—pain or suffering. Our reward is proportional to the pain we endure.

According to this explanation, Ben Hei Hei’s message connects to the broader theme of the willingness to endure pain in order to accomplish our goals. This point is made by Avot’s added final perek (Avot 6:4), which emphasizes the importance of the willingness to suffer in order to learn Torah: “Kach hi darkah shel Torah: pat b’melach tochal, u’mayim b’mesurah tishteh, v’chayei tza’ar tichyeh, The way of Torah is (even) eating bread with salt, rationing water and living with pain.” A person should be willing to live a life of poverty and even endure a life of pain (a life lacking physical pleasures) if this is what his Torah learning requires.

The Midrash (Sifri 306) attributes this idea to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe described (in detail) the pain he had to endure in order to bring the Torah down from heaven for the Jewish People because they, too, needed to (be ready to) pay a similar price for Torah learning.

Though he did not necessarily agree with the saying, “No pain, no gain,” Moshe taught that gain hinges on the willingness to endure pain. Ben Hei Hei teaches that reward is proportional to the actual pain we experience.


The Eved’s Effort

Many other Rishonim understand the word tza’ar as referring to the effort involved. Fulfilling mitzvot that require significant effort shows a higher level of care and commitment and thus deserves more reward.

The Ra’avyah (Masechet Chagigah 3:995) takes this approach and connects our Mishna to another teaching involving Ben Hei Hei.The Gemara (Chagigah 9b) relates that Ben Hei Hei asked Hillel to define the uniqueness of an eved Elokim (servant of God). Ben Hei Hei wondered why Malachi HaNavi used both that term and the term “tzaddik” in the same pasuk (Malachi 3:18). What is the difference between the two terms? What does the term “eved Elokim” add to “tzaddik”?

Hillel answered that whereas a tzaddik reviews his Torah learning 100 times, an eved Elokim goes the “extra mile” and studies it 101 times. The tzaddik ensures that he understands and remembers his Torah perfectly—a level of 100%. The eved Elokim, servant of God, sees the goal of learning as more than just knowledge. Effort is also important to him, so he continues studying even after he has mastered the material.

May Ben Hei Hei’s teaching inspire us to put our best effort into our learning and mitzvah fulfillment and not be deterred by challenging circumstances.

Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the Educational Director of World Mizrachi and the RZA. His new book, “Essentials of Judaism,” can be purchased at rabbireuventaragin.com.

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