June 11, 2024
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בֶּן הֵא הֵא אוֹמֵר, לְפוּם צַעֲרָא אגרא: (אבות ה:כג)

Last week, we saw how Ben Hei Hei links the agra (reward) received for mitzvah fulfillment to the tza’ar—the effort and pain—involved. The obvious question is why this linkage exists. Why is the reward proportional to the tza’ar?

The answer to this question hinges on how we understand the agra referred to by the mishna. What type of sechar (reward) does it refer to?

 Reward

The standard explanation (Rashi Avot 5:23, Rambam Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:6) is that the mishna refers to the sechar given to us by Hashem. Hashem rewards us most for the mitzvah fulfillment we find challenging and painful. The Sefer Chassidim (155) explains that Hashem is fully aware and appreciative of our efforts, not just what we accomplish.

 Benefit

Avot D’Rebbi Natan (3:6) seems to have a different understanding of agra, because it links the agra to the fact that the tza’ar is inherently “good for man.” According to Avot D’Rebbi Natan, the agra is the intrinsic benefit we receive naturally from the tza’ar—not some external heavenly reward. What natural benefit do we derive from effort and pain?

 Comprehension—The ‘Butter’ of Torah

The Meiri connects Ben Hei Hei’s statement to Torah learning and defines the reward as our comprehension of Torah. We grasp ideas best when we work hard to understand them. The better understanding can be understood as an external reward for—or, as a natural result of—our efforts. The more effort we invest in our learning, the better we understand the material.

The Meiri’s explanation echoes the Gemara’s (Megillah 6b) assertion that “yagati u’matzati, ta’amin—the (only) one who claims that ‘I worked and found’ should be believed.” It is hard work that facilitates “finding” the ultimate comprehension.

For this reason, Rav Kook (Ein Ayah, Brachot 9b, page 344) rejected attempts to make Torah learning more user-friendly. He argued that hard work is critical to achieving a high level of Torah study. This is how he explained the Gemara’s assertion (Brachot 63b) that “the butter of Torah” can only be achieved by those who “spit out their mothers’ milk.” Those who settle for “mothers’ milk,” by learning that which is spoon-fed to them, will never invest the effort needed to create “butter”—the deeper, more advanced form of Torah. Though we should help people succeed in their learning, we should avoid spoon-feeding them, because the extra effort yields a higher level of comprehension. (See Chovat HaTalmidim, pages 22-23, who applies this idea to spiritual development.)

 Retention—The Torah of ‘Af’

The Rambam links Ben Hei Hei’s statement to our retention of Torah learning. We remember ideas that we work hard to understand (based on Kohelet Rabbah 2:9) Reish Lakish made this point in a strong way by asserting that Torah learning only “remains” with those who “kill themselves” to attain it (Brachot 63b, see also Ketubot 23b).

Easy come, easy go… Only the Torah that we make sacrifices to learn remains with us, years later. Shlomo HaMelech called this the Torah that we study “b’af—under duress.” (See Sefer Kohelet 2:9 with Midrash Zuta) Even Shlomo HaMelech—the wisest amongst men—recognized that the wisdom he retained best was that which he struggled to attain (Rambam Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:12 connects this to Reish Lakish’s statement).

 Appreciation

Part of why we retain what we work hard to attain is because we appreciate it more. We care about what we struggle and sacrifice for. This is why Hashem arranged for His three greatest gifts to us—Torah, Eretz Yisrael, and Olam Haba—to all be nikneit b’yissurim, acquired through suffering (Berachot 5a). We appreciate the missions that are difficult to complete; the tza’ar we experience helps us appreciate the goals we accomplish.

The Beit Yosef and the Ramchal (based on the Zohar) saw this appreciation as the reason why Hashem created our world. This world’s reality of Hashem’s hidden presence affords us the opportunity to choose to commit ourselves to Him. This makes our reward in the World-to-Come —a close relationship with Hashem—more meaningful to us. We appreciate a relationship that we have to work hard to develop more, than one that is easily achieved.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (“Reflections on Pesach: What Does Avodah Mean To You?”) used this idea to explain why the degree of observance of the Yamim Tovim is proportional to how difficult each one is to observe; the ones hardest to observe are the ones most observed. Pesach requires more advanced preparatory work than any other Yom Tov. Yom Kippur is the day hardest to complete. Surprisingly, the percentage of Jews who observe these two holidays is significantly higher than that of those easier to observe. We appreciate and are, therefore, most committed to that which is most difficult.

 Growth—Making Ourselves Stronger

The struggle and pain we endure also strengthens our character. Difficult circumstances force us to develop additional skills and aspects of our personality.

Rav Elimelech Biderman (Be’er HaParsha, Naso 5782) describes a street in Lakewood which was hit by Hurricane Sandy. The trees on one side of the street were all uprooted, while the parallel ones on the other side remained standing. The only difference between the rows of trees was that the trees on the first side of the street benefited from a custom-made watering system, while the trees on the second side did not. The conveniently available water allowed the first set of trees to survive without needing to forge deep roots. They were, thus, easily uprooted. In contrast, the trees without easy access to water were forced to strike deep roots. These roots helped them survive the hurricane. Difficult circumstances force us to develop stronger survival skills.

Rabbi Lamm (“Backbone—A Sermon on the Anatomy of the Spirit”) applied this idea to chinuch habonim (child-rearing) and cautioned against over-protecting:

“Without labor and struggle, without exertion of the intellect and long hours of patient plodding, one can neither master the intricacies of any profession, nor can one achieve great and satisfying success in any business. It is true about children—if we over-protect them, if we train them to accept easy triumphs, the shortcuts to success, then they will grow up without backbones, nurtured on the infantile conception that a wishbone is enough. Such people can never fly, they can only flutter. Their vision never soars, their dreams remain myopic, their conceptions petty.”

No Pain …

Our Mishna reminds us of the famous saying: “No pain, no gain.” Our “gain,” or—as the mishna describes it—our agra, is proportional not only to our accomplishments, but also to the effort we invest and the pain we endure.

This agra consists of both heavenly blessings, as well as our own internal personal growth. The challenges we face help us reach and retain higher levels of learning and spirituality, and also inspire us to develop ourselves as stronger people.

May realizing the above help us successfully face—and even celebrate—the opportunity to confront life’s challenges.

Summarized by Rafi Davis


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

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