Because Masechet Avot initially consisted of five perakim, the fifth perek’s last words are also the last words of the masechet and are, therefore, especially important. The last words are a three-word statement from Ben Hei Hei: “L’fum tza’ara, agra—Our reward is proportional to the effort invested, to the pain experienced in the process.”
When Ben Hei Hei taught that the reward depends on the tza’ar (pain), what type of deed was he referring to?
Fighting the Good Fight
The Yalkut Mei’am Loez saw the topic as the fulfillment of mitzvot and ethical principles. He explains that Ben Hei Hei concluded the masechet by addressing those frustrated with their inability to properly fulfill mitzvot and Masechet Avot’s many dictates. Ben Hei Hei raises our spirits by reminding us that our reward hinges on the amount of effort we exert—not on the degree of our success.
For this reason, the Rambam (Shemoneh Perakim 6) saw the one who needs to overcome his yetzer hara in order to fulfill mitzvot (and avoid aveirot) as greater than the chasid who no longer desires sin. As opposed to the “philosophers,” who prefer the chasid, the Rambam champions the one who needs to be koveish (conquer) his yetzer. His effort and, thus, his rewards are greater. (See Sefer Chassidim 155)
This is how the Ari explained the significance of the avodat Hashem of later generations of Jews. Because our distance from the Sinaitic revelation puts us on a lower level than previous generations, Rav Chaim Vital (quoted by the Chida)—the Ari’s most prominent talmid—asked the Ari what significance our lowly actions could possibly have. The Ari answered that our being on a lower level means that our mitzvah fulfillment is a greater challenge and, therefore, our success is more significant.
People are often disillusioned by their failures and the strength of their yetzer hara. Instead, we should appreciate how the challenges we overcome add to the value of our successes. The Ba’al HaTanya, in fact, adds that a person should realize that this may be why he was created—not for his successes, but for the sake of his struggle to succeed (Sefer HaTanya 27).
The Process of Torah Learning
Many commentaries apply Ben Hei Hei’s words to Torah learning (for example, see Rambam to Avot 5:23 and Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:6) Rabbeinu Yonah connects our mishna to Ben Bag Bag’s directive (in the previous mishna): “Hafoch bah va’foch 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 our 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,” (originally found in Brachot 28b). We contrast the efforts we invest in Torah learning with those invested by others in alternative endeavors. We are rewarded; they are not.
The Chofetz Chaim asked the obvious question: Do others not receive reward for their efforts? Aren’t most people paid for the products they produce and the time they invest? The Chofetz Chaim explained that, generally, people are paid for the results of their efforts. If their efforts are fruitful, they get paid. If not, they leave empty-handed. The mitzvah of talmud Torah is unique in that we are rewarded for the effort itself. We receive sechar for the time and energy we devote to Torah learning, even if we are not successful in understanding or retaining the knowledge.
These two understandings of Ben Hei Hei’s statement are, of course, not mutually exclusive. His words apply equally to the 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 commensurate to?
Many commentaries (See Rashi, Rambam and Bartenura to Avot 5:23) interpret the word “tza’ar” in the literal sense—pain or suffering. This interpretation implies that our reward is proportional to the pain we endure.
Similarly, a mishna in Avot’s final perek (6:4) emphasizes the importance of the willingness to endure pain 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 that lacks physical pleasures), if this is what his Torah learning requires.
The midrash (Sifrei, Devarim 306) attributes this idea to Moshe Rabbeinu, who depicted the pain he had to endure in order to bring the Torah down from heaven to the Jewish people. Moshe instructed the Jews that they too, needed to—be ready to—pay a similar price for Torah learning.
Though not necessarily agreeing with the saying “no pain, no gain,” Moshe taught that gain hinges on the willingness to endure pain. Mesechet Avot 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. Sefer Ra’avyah, (Masechet Chagigah 3:995) for example, 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. Ben Hei Hei wondered why Malachi HaNavi used both that term and the term “tzaddik” in the same pasuk (Sefer Malachi 3:18). What is the difference between the two terms? What does the term “eved Elokim” add to tzaddik?
Hillel answered that a tzaddik reviews his Torah learning 100 times. The 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.
After understanding what Ben Hei Hei means by tza’ar, we now need to appreciate how the sechar (reward) is proportional to it. Next week, we will iy”H see how and why our reward hinges upon the pain we endure and the effort we invest.
Summarized by Rafi Davis
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.