What we call the sixth chapter of Avot opens with the words “Our Sages learned in the language of the Mishnah.” The second “Mishnah” quotes R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who was an Amora, a rabbi of the time of the Talmud. That’s because this isn’t Mishnah, it’s a chapter of Mishnah-like material added on to Avot because of the custom to study it between Pesach and Shavuot. Nonetheless, I’ll refer to these paragraphs (which seems too generic) as Mishnayot, because I can’t think of a better word.
The Mistake in Neglecting Torah Study
R. Yehoshua b. Levi says that every day, a Heavenly Voice exudes from Horev (where we received the Torah) bemoaning how people hurt themselves by insulting Torah, for anyone who is not involved in Torah is worthy of reprimand (with a supporting verse I won’t discuss). He adds the famous tradition that the only way to true freedom is through Torah study, with a verse. Then a third step, that all who involve themselves in Torah study are uplifted, with a verse.
These are three reasons to feel the personal need to involve ourselves in Torah study. First, he understands each of ours’ individual neglect to constitute an insult about which a Heavenly Voice wails. In the universe Hashem created, Torah study was meant to play a daily role, and when we neglect to study, we insult the Torah and, by extension, Creation.
That would lead to study as a way to avoid giving offense. R. Yehoshua b. Levi wants us to know that Torah also frees us as nothing else does. If he means study itself, I think it might be that the study of Torah trains us to listen to truths and ideas beyond ourselves. While today we see many who impose their ideas on Torah, I believe R. Yehoshua b. Levi would have seen Torah as a process of accepting received wisdom and then exploring where that takes us. The first step, accepting tradition, having it shape who we are and how we understand the world, is freeing because it takes us out of ourselves.
And uplifts us to boot, the third part of his statement. We should study because we’re committing a wrong if we don’t, and because it frees us when we do. Even more, it offers us an opportunity for elevation that we cannot get elsewhere. So we should study.
Even If It’s Inconvenient
Paragraph 4 offers a seemingly ascetic view of how Torah is studied, saying that the “way of Torah” is to eat bread with salt, measure out one’s water intake, sleep on the floor, living a life of distress but toiling at Torah. Rashi doesn’t see that as a prescription, but an “even if” scenario. The obligation to study Torah is so overriding, that our personal circumstances are never an excuse.
This is similar to Yoma 35b, which speaks of historical figures who remove our right to claim we couldn’t study Torah. The example for someone who is poor is Hillel, who studied even though he was a day laborer, half his wages going to daily sustenance, the other half to the entry fee to the study hall. One day when he earned too little to afford the entry fee, he listened in at the skylight (and then got snowed on, as is well known).
Poverty isn’t an excuse, which is how Rashi reads this Mishnah (wealth is also not an excuse, as proved by R. Elazar b. Harsom, but that’s a different story).
Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 3;6, seems to see this lifestyle as a positive value. He opens the paragraph by saying “he whose heart has lifted him to properly fulfill the obligation and be crowned with the crown of Torah,” will, among other things, live this kind of life.
It’s possible he meant this exactly as written– there is a famous letter in which he said he ate only one meal a day, and worked himself so hard that he spent much of the day lying down out of exhaustion. Whatever the full extent of his meaning, he does imply that creature comforts can get in the way of our Torah study. If we can only learn in a certain kind of seat, or are only satisfied by certain foods or a certain bed, our ability to study will be constantly threatened by changes in our routine. The less we become attached to those comforts, the more sure we can be that we will be able to learn.
Highlights of the Forty-Eight Qualities
Paragraph Six of the chapter contrasts Torah to kingship and priesthood. The latter two are acquired through thirty and twenty-four steps, respectively. The king has certain powers, laid out in Sefer Shmuel, and is treated certain ways, laid out in Sanhedrin, so that acquisition means how his kingship expresses itself in the world. So, too, the priests are given twenty-four gifts that express their priesthood.
Torah is acquired in forty-eight ways, the Mishnah says, and these forty-eight are, strikingly, qualities we ourselves can cultivate (a few are dependent on finding Torah scholars, friends, and students, as we’ll see). As Rambam notes in the beginning of the third chapter of Laws of Torah Study, the crown of Torah is not hereditary, as is kingship or priesthood, it’s available for all. This expresses itself here as well, in that the steps to take to acquire it are mostly in our power. It’s out there for each of us to do.
I do not have the space to discuss each of the forty-eight, so let me take the ones that stimulate me most this time around in this chapter. The second of the qualities is שמיעת האוזן, listening with our ears, which might seem obvious, except that I meet many people who cannot hear that which they do not want to hear. No matter how clearly, patiently, and calmly an idea is presented to them, if they’re committed to not hearing it, they won’t. But the process of Torah study starts with being willing and able to listen.
Fear, Awe, and Humility
That ties in to three qualities mentioned a few words later, אימה, יראה, andענוה, which Google translates as terror, fear, and humility. Even if we tamp down the level of fear involved, it bears noting that Chazal assumed the process of Torah study required some level of fear, perhaps fear of making a mistake, perhaps the awe of encountering the Master of the Universe through His Torah, perhaps the concern with fulfilling our obligations regarding Torah study.
All of which would also show why humility is necessary. We need to be aware of the seriousness of the endeavor, of how all-encompassing Torah is, of how many greats have studied before us and not felt they were done. Of where we fit in the history of Torah study (which is also another quality, המכיר את מקומו, being properly aware of our place).
The Surroundings of Torah
Three other qualities are serving Torah scholars, nailing down ideas with friends, and working them through with students. Torah cannot be studied all on one’s own—we have to interact with those who have come before us, learning from them both in the academic sense and in the sense of watching them live their lives, and learning those lessons as well (as a series of stories in Berachot 62a shows, where students take daring steps to learn their master’s ways of living). We also need to shape our ideas in the company of friends, because few if any of us see the truth on our own without stepping wrong (or stepping one way when there are other equally valid ways). Finally, the interaction with students, who may not be as learned as the teacher but bring eyes to the puzzle that he cannot have, can be the most productive interaction of all, as Rebbe is quoted as saying in Makkot 10a (or R. Chanina, in Ta’anit 7a).
Measuring Out Carefully
The Mishnah lists five activities that we should limit in the name of acquiring Torah, sleep, conversation, pleasure, laughter, and involvement in the world (דרך ארץ). People often hear this as recommending asceticism, whereas it’s really recommending careful calculation of what’s necessary and valuable. One approach to sleep is the less of it the better, which would be one way to read מיעוט שינה, lessening sleep.
I have translated it as limiting sleep, though, because I believe the Mishnah is commenting on the fact that we can allow various aspects of our lives to take over. There is an amount of sleep we need to barely function, a different amount we need to feel fully functional, and yet a different amount we need to feel great. That great feeling, I think, might be more psychological than express any physical need for that sleep. The Mishnah is saying that we need to limit our sleep, to avoid sleeping for the sake of sleeping.
The same goes for the others—conversation, pleasure, laughter, and involvement with the world and one’s livelihood all have their place. But they all can become ends of their own, instead of contributing pieces of a life lived in the pursuit of Torah (and, outside of this Mishnah, the service of Hashem). If we allow these to become too prevalent, too consuming, we will not have the time or freedom of mind and spirit to study Torah.
Attitude Towards the Sages
The words אמונת חכמים mean “belief in the Sages,” and are ripe for abuse. I have read many claims that we are obligated to believe x or y which simply aren’t true. That cannot be allowed to blind us to the need to have אמונת חכמים, to understand that the Sages in each generation are the bearers of our tradition, are those who transmit the tradition to us, and give us the task of passing it along to the next generation.
Statements by Chazal may or may not be foolproof—and that question itself might depend on context. I remember R. Lichtenstein noting that Justice Jackson said of the Supreme Court that “we are not final because we are right, we are right because we are final.” In contrast, R. Lichtenstein said, Chazal are final because they’re right, because they are the bearers of the tradition. We can go back and forth on the parameters of that, but the basic truth of it must also be part of our Torah study, or else it will be impossible for us to fully acquire Torah.
The Kind of Love Necessary to Acquire Torah
The last piece of the Mishnah I have space for speaks of the fact that Torah is acquired by being well-liked or beloved (which can be for many reasons and make a variety of contributions to our Torah study), by loving Hashem, loving others, loving righteousness, loving remonstration, and loving the straight path.
The importance of love of Hashem to the study of Torah reminds us that it cannot be solely an academic endeavor (as does the need to learn in order to observe, another quality in the list); unless we are searching for our Creator through the Torah Hashem so beneficently gave us, we are missing a crucial piece.
Since Torah shows us the way to set up our lives in the most productive way, the love of others, the deep desire to be part of building the best possible world for the benefit of all creation is another goad to Torah study that cannot be replaced. If I care deeply about a cure for cancer, world peace, and a solution to our water problems, and I come to understand that some part of each of those puzzles can be found in Torah study (in combination with the usual ways of attacking), that push to study will be independent of and in addition to whatever other reasons I may have for study. And the more reasons we have, the more energetically and successfully we will study.
Valuing righteousness, remonstration, and the straight path are facets of an overall attachment to what is right and good. Being attached to that, wanting to see it put into place, brought into action, will again invest us in our learning more deeply. And the more invest, the better our return.
Sow, So That You Can Reap
These three Mishnayot remind us that Torah study is not for rabbis or scholars or greatly pious people. It is for each of us, as part of our daily lives, in a continual growth process. I hope for all of us that this Shavuot is a time of renewal of that connection, a return to the Giving of the Torah and the acquiring of that Torah by each of us, in every generation.