Gidon Rothstein

Rashi on How Central What We Want Is to Who We Are

From at least the time of Kohelet, people have sought the key to a well-lived life.  It’s certainly too complicated a question to answer here, but Rashi thinks that just wanting to is a part of the answer.  For Rashi, the fact of wanting what’s right or good defines who we are more significantly than many of us realize.

Rashi’s ideas are stimulating enough to be worth reviewing on their own (and came up in the context of my classes on Torah study), but they also offer another way of looking at a comment I have struggled with over the years.  Almost three and a half years ago, I was moved to discuss a statement I heard in R. Henkin’s name, that as long as a Jew is alive, that Jew must want to live.

If you’ll forgive my being a bit personal, I had and have a hard time taking that at face value, first because it does not match what I have learned elsewhere.  Too, I meet Jews who seem to see life as an end of its own, to be clung to at all costs, even when there’s no meaningful experience of life, even when halachic authorities rule there is no requirement to work to hold onto life in that situation.

Did R. Henkin, who had a difficult old age, mean wanting to live, as an end of its own?

The last shiur I gave on the laws of Torah study included a statement by Rashi that seems to me to add unexpected understanding to this statement of R. Henkin’s.  It did not appear in the summary of that shiur, because the written version doesn’t allow the space to share all that is said in the original. Since I was away last Shabbat, I have the space here to take it up and expand our understanding of how the simple question of what we want shapes who we become, positively and not.

Defining a Worthy Student

Last time, we discussed Rambam’s ruling that teachers may not teach those who are not הגון, who are not appropriate. Rambam focused on the student’s actions as the marker of worthiness, but Rashi offers a different definition.

Ta’anit 7a notes two sets of verses about a teacher’s relationship to students that seem to contradict each other. First, Yeshayahu 21;14 tells us to bring water to the thirsty, while 55;1 calls on the thirsty to go to the water. Taking water for Torah, R. Chanina bar Papi wonders which it is: bring the Torah to the thirsty, or wait for them to come to you? R. Chanina bar Chama similarly wonders about the contrast between Mishlei 5;16 and 17, the first of which tells us to flow our springs outward (meaning teach our Torah to others), and the next that says to hold it to us ourselves.

The Gemara answers both questions by distinguishing between worthy and unworthy students, but leaves “worthy” undefined, opening the door to commentators unwittingly revealing their assumptions. Rashi says that a worthy student is one who wants to learn from you. The teacher should go to such a student (and reveal even secrets of Torah), but if not, the teacher should let the student come to him.

Why Would a Student Come Who Does Not Want to Learn?

It’s a remarkable comment at two levels. First, Rashi seems to imagine a student who does not want to learn, but will come if the teacher does not. (Rashi, who had to go to Germany to learn, touches on the topic of who goes to whom again in Avot 4;14, on R. Nehorai’s telling a person to exile himself to a place of Torah).

That suggests that “wanting to learn” comes in different levels, that a student might make the effort to go to study with a teacher and yet still not be considered one who wants to learn, not in a way that would obligate the teacher to go to him.  So when we say “want to” throughout this essay, make sure to read it as wanting deeply and fully enough to fit Rashi’s assumption, the kind of wanting that obligates the teacher to come to us.

But what struck me more was that Rashi makes “wanting to” the standard of worthiness. He may have assumed observance and effort, but the piece of the puzzle he focuses on is desire.  If a student truly wants to learn, that’s what matters, what qualifies that student as the kind that obligates the teacher to make efforts to connect with him.

Wanting to Leave Egypt

The comment becomes even more interesting if we remember another fascinating Rashi.  In Shmot 13;18, Rashi reported the Rabbinic tradition that four-fifths of the Jews died in Egypt. Back in 10;22, he told us those evildoers died during the plague of darkness, so the Egyptians wouldn’t see. (The assumption that they would fail to notice the sudden disappearance of four-fifths of the people is itself interesting, but for another time).

The Midrash does not tell us what made these people evil. Rashi says, שלא רצו לצאת, for they did not want to leave (Egypt). Meaning, with all the well-known flaws in the generation of the Exodus (their various sins in the desert; their numbers including people like Datan and Avrim, the spies, Korach, and, in the next generation, Zimri; Yehoshua 24;14’s implication that thegeneration that entered Israel, after all that had happened, had still not yet abandoned idolatry), none of that prevented them from being taken out.

No, to be evil enough to be killed in the plague of darkness, to be so evil as to be unredeemable, according to Rashi, took not wanting to leave. After hundreds of years living in the most advanced civilization of its time (albeit as slaves, but that was apparently not enough of a barrier to their preferring to stay), people had become comfortable. So comfortable that 80% of them in Chazal’s reading (meaning: despite Chazal usually trying to see the best in our forebears), didn’t want to go.

It is a stark lesson for any Jews who happen to live in exile at a time when the path and gates to Israel open up.  For us, it offers new light onto what R. Henkin said.

The Power of Wanting

Two sources do not a theory make, but Rashi’s invoking “wanting to” in different contexts jumps out at me. To be a worthy student, you have to want to. To leave Egypt, you just had to want to. Because wanting to speaks powerfully to who we are; we may not live up to our ideals, but having the right ideals, wanting what’s right and good, is itself an element of who we are that can be enough to earn us more than we deserve.

Of course, there’s a difference between saying we want something and actually wanting it.  There is a story of a student at the yeshiva in Radin, drunk on Purim, asking the Chafetz Chaim how to get to his place in heaven. Ignoring the chutzpah in the question, the Chafetz Chaim replied that he assumed that whatever share he had in heaven was shaped by his care in avoiding לשון הרע, wrongful gossip.  If this young man were to undertake such care as well, he could expect a similar share in the World to Come.

The student hesitated, aware that he could not make such a serious commitment, and the Chafetz Chaim reportedly responded, “Look at him, on the threshold of Heaven, and he cannot take that next step.” Sometimes, unless we act on our desires, we can no longer claim to truly desire it.

But Rashi’s focus on what we want resonates with me, and suggests another way to understand R. Henkin’s comment.

Wanting to Live

The comment as I heard it said that as long as a Jew is alive, s/he must want to live.  It seems to me that sources such as Kohelet’s penultimate verse (that “all of man” is fearing Hashem and observing His mitzvot) offer room to suggest R. Henkin meant something other than life for life’s sake (and something more important, in my view).

Hashem gives us life, we need to remember, for a purpose; whether we are assigned long or short lives, whether we feel like we have a long or short time left on earth doesn’t change the goal, to fill our lives with that which Hashem wants of us.  We hope for more time, because most of us need all the time we can get to shape ourselves close to what Hashem wants of us, to earn the best spot we can in the World to Come.

What R. Henkin might have meant, I am suggesting, is that we should see each moment of life as an opportunity, even when beset by illness or other adversity.  Blind and somewhat deaf, debilitated and clearly on the way to death, R. Henkin was telling us that whatever time we have is time we can use in ways that will make us better servants of Hashem. At each moment, we have to want to live, to use our time in the ways possible for right then, that are our best understanding of what Hashem wants of and for us.

But to see those opportunities, let alone take advantage of them, we have to want to live, in the broader sense of life we find in the verse in Tehillim from which the Chafetz Chaim took the name of his book, keeping our tongues from evil, our lips from speaking wrongly, staying far from evil, and doing good.

It all starts with wanting it, with being sure we align what we want with what Hashem wants, in where we choose to live, in our connection to Torah study, and, most broadly, in what matters to us about the privilege of being alive.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.