Dear Rabbi Ingram. I liked your piece on not praying to angels. However, I was reading Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and was very confused by the words: “If you have studied much Torah, they will give you much reward”. Who are they? Is it our friends the angels again? And if so, who are they to give reward? Please explain. Thanks, Avi.
You ask a very good question!
The aphorism to which you are referring appears at the end of chapter two (mishna 21) and is quoted in the name of Rabbi Tarfon. The first part of the maxim is very famous – It is not for you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it. Rabbi Tarfon continues with the words you cite – Im lamadeta Torah harbeh, not’nim le-cha s’char harbeh. “If you have studied much Torah, they will give you good reward”. Why not’nim? Who are “they” when all Heavenly reward is in the hands of the One?
Our major commentators do not appear perturbed by the pluralised pronoun as they do not remark on it. One possible explanation may be found in the concept of the beit din shel ma’ala, a phrase occurring, for example, in the hatarat nedarim, the annulment of vows traditionally made on Erev Rosh Hashana – “just as the earthly court now permits them (the annulled voluntary vows) so may they be permitted in the Heavenly Court!” In the pre-Kol Nidrei declaration sanctioning prayers with serial transgressors (thought to have its origin in the intrepid, once-a-year visit to the synagogue of the anusim, the openly-Christianised secret Jews of the Spanish Inquisition), a slightly different phrase is used, namely the yeshiva shel ma’ala (the Heavenly Academy). What do these odd phrases mean?
In the mind of a tsadik, no imagined other-worldly pleasure could be greater than learning Torah before the Shechina (Divine Presence) in a heavenly academy. (See Bava Metsia 85a). A tsadik in the next world becomes a kind of angel. So the concept of a grand angelic Beit Din with G-D at its head becomes a way of ascribing more greatness to G-D, in the same way as the vision of an angelic choir singing G-D’s praises every day (a metaphor used daily in the Yotseir Or blessing before Shema) serves to enhance G-D’s prestige, as it were.
On Genesis 1:26 – Na’aseh adam, literally “let Us make man” – Rashi (based on the Midrash Bereishit Raba 8:9) makes his famous comment about G-D consulting his retinue (famalia she-lo) of angels regarding man’s creation. This of course is not to be taken literally. The moral lesson the Midrash wishes to draw is that a superior should be humble enough to seek advice from those inferior to him, and if humility is a desirable trait then for certain G-D possesses it!
Leaving metaphor, imagery, symbolism and allegory aside, Pirkei Avot elsewhere is crystal-clear on the matter. “Rabbi Yishmael …used to say: Do not act as sole judge for no-one judges alone except One [i.e. G-D]!”
So does “they who give great reward” refer figuratively to the Heavenly angelic court? I am not convinced. Surely Rabbi Tarfon would have spelt that out had he meant it in such a way.
A second possibility is that the word not’nim crept in as a printers’ error initially and was never corrected. While this is not impossible, it is too facile an explanation to adopt without evidence.
No. I believe that not’nim refers to human rewarders. I would humbly submit the following interpretative suggestion.
Rabbi Tarfon is seeking to contrast quantity and quality of Torah learning and to teach that the latter is the desideratum
If you have studied much Torah, they – your teachers, your principals, your examiners, even your peers – will bestow upon you much reward and honour! Isn’t it always so? Don’t the A-students usually walk off with all the prizes? They have assimilated all the material, possibly with minimal effort due to their natural brilliance, and can regurgitate it faithfully in an exam. They have learnt four hundred blatt Gemara by heart because they have a photographic memory. A prodigious feat for sure!
When I ran the town cheder while rabbi in Leicester, I too was guilty. I awarded prizes to the brightest students since they presented the best. But after a couple of years, my perceptive wife saw what was happening and urged me to change my focus. I listened to her – and I started looking out for those children who had not necessarily achieved the most but had persevered the hardest.
And so, Rabbi Tarfon proceeds to declare: But faithful is your Employer to pay you the reward for your labour (s’char pe’ulateicha). G-D rewards effort more than achievement, quality over quantity. “According to the exertion is the reward” (Avot 5:26). “Whether one does a lot or a little, the thing that matters is that he directs his heart to Heaven” (Menachot 13:11). Twenty blatt with sweat is worth four hundred without. No doubt even more, in G-D’s eyes!
Now we can view the entirety of R’ Tarfon’s Mishna 21 as a unified whole:-
It is not your duty to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it. It isn’t “all or nothing”. Because you can’t “do it all” doesn’t mean you mustn’t make the effort to do what you can. And that indeed is what matters!
If you have studied much Torah, they give you much reward. Society rewards achievement: the moguls, the tycoons, the successful superstars are the ones who rake in the millions while the journeymen, try as they might, are usually relegated to the sidelines Even in the Torah world, achievement is feted rather than effort.
But your real Employer – G-D – can be relied upon to pay you the reward for your toil. Unlike human beings, He will value effort over achievement, quality over quantity
And know that the real reward of the righteous will be in the future dimension. In the World-to-Come, the world of pure spirit, nothing is quantifiable. It is all down to quality. This is where you will receive the reward for the extent of your toil, however much or little it yielded.
As a postscript, we may now be more readily able to reconcile two seemingly incompatible statements in this week’s sidra. In Deuteronomy 4:6-8 we are described as a goy gadol, a “great nation” with which no other can compare. Yet in 7:7 we are termed ha-me’at mikol ha’amim, the smallest of the nations”, a description which we will feel more befits us. Actually, there is no contradiction. Both are true! The Torah does not equate greatness with numbers. What counts is not the quantity of souls but the quality of soul.