April 22, 2024
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The Value of Learning Torah In Difficult Circumstances

The midrash (She­mot Rabbah 52:3) in our parsha relates a powerful story that may highlight the extraordinary merit and value of learning Torah when things in life are difficult and challenging.

One Fiday, R’ Shimon ben Chalafta had no means from which to get his parnasa (sustenance). He prayed before Hashem, and a precious jewel was given to him from Heaven. R’ Shimon gave it to a money changer, and he was able to provide for that Shabbat.

However, R’ Shimon’s wife asked him, “From where are these (Shabbat provisions)?” He replied, “From that which the Holy One, blessed is He, provided.” She said, “If you will not tell me where they are from I will not taste anything.” R’ Shimon then began relating the story to his wife. He he told her, “Thus did I pray before Hashem, and, (as a result), [a jewel] was given to me from Heaven.” She told him, “I will not taste anything until you tell me that you will return [the jewel] upon the departure of Shabbat.” R’ Shimon asked her, “Why?” She explained to him, “Do you want that [in the world to come], your table (i.e., eternal reward) will be deficient, while that of your colleagues will be complete?!”

R’ Shimon went and informed Rebbi (i.e.R’ Yehuda HaNasi) of the incident. Rebbi told him, “Go tell her [in my name], ‘If your table is deficient, I will complete it from my own.’” R’ Shimon went and told his wife what Rebbi had told him. She, however, said to him, “Come with me to the one who taught you Torah.”

When they came to Rebbi, she said to him, “My master, does a person see his friend in the world to come? Does not each righteous person have a world unto himself? For it is written (in Kohelet), ‘For man goes to beit olamo …; it’s not written, “olamim,” but rather “olamo” (his world).” Once R’ Shimon heard this, he went and returned the jewel.

Rav Elyah Lopian observes that R’ Shimon’s wife’s argument prevailed in this debate, and these two Torah giants had nothing to answer back to her reasoning. The question, however, is: What novel idea did R’ Shimon’s wife essentially relate to them that, seemingly, neither R’ Shimon nor Rebbi were aware of?

Rav Lopian quotes Rav Yisrael Salanter who explains that R’ Shimon’s wife refuted Rebbi’s attempted reassurance—that for any eternal reward they may lose out on, he will offer them part of his eternal reward—with the following logic: The phrase of “olamo” in the pasuk, teaches us that the personal “world” which every righteous person attains in the world to come is built and created here in this world; a person’s reward in the world to come is dependent on and produced through the mitzvot and good deeds he performs in this world. Hence, R’ Shimon’s wife essentially replied to Rebbi, “True, you are holy, and an extremely pious person, and you have (therefore) built for yourself a magnificent and great world in the world to come through the vast amount ofTorah you have studied and the many mitzvot and good deeds that you have performed in this world.

However, you are a prince and a very wealthy person, and as a result, you lack the reward of learning Torah in pressing circumstances, for you have no pressing circumstances. On the other hand, my husband R’ Shimon learns Torah whilst under pressing circumstances. Hence, how can you say that if my husband’s table will be deficient that you will complete it from your own? The reward of learning Torah under pressing circumstances is something you don’t have—only we do! Therefore, it’s impossible for you—with all your merits—to compensate for what we might end up lacking in the world to come!” This was the argument that prevailed over Rebbi’s attempted reassurance, which thus spurred R’ Shimon to return the jewel (Lev Eliyahu, Pikudei).

We can perhaps learn from here the tremendous value of learning Torah when things in life may be difficult. It’s the tough moments in life that can provide us with the golden and unique opportunities to gain the outstanding merit of learning Torah under pressing and strenuous situations. While one might naturally seek to study Torah when things in life are smooth, when we feel good, etc., it is perhaps specifically during the times that are hard to learn Torah that if we, nevertheless, apply ourselves and seize the opportunity to learn, we can earn extraordinary merits that might vastly surpass the merits of Torah that is learned under easier circumstances.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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