The Ten Days of Awe, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, have concluded. After a period characterized by extremely intense prayer and introspection, we usher in the Holiday of Sukkot with joy. G-d willing, our prayers have been answered and we have been granted a blessed new year.
It is thrilling to begin a new year with a clean slate. There are discoveries to make, problems to solve and challenges to overcome. There may also be trepidation about those very same things. But Sukkot provides us with a decompression chamber. It eases the passage from the pressures of facing divine judgment for our past misdeeds to the fresh opportunity to do good deeds in the new year. We can also renew acquaintances with family and friends, and enjoy their warmth and succor, while dining al fresco in the Sukkah.
In contrast to the Days of Awe, which involve our thoughts and prayers, Sukkot is about doing. There is the Sukkah to build and dwell in and the Etrog and Lulav to be selected, assembled with the Haddasim and Aravot and shaken. The Festival culminates with a celebration of dance and song on Simchat Torah. It is when we read the final chapter of the Torah and begin with the reading of the first anew, as a part of an annual cycle of perennial Torah readings.
The focus on the Torah is cogent. We read it publicly on Shabbat mornings and afternoons during the year, on Mondays and Thursday mornings during the week, at the beginning of each new lunar month and on the Holidays and Fast Days. These public readings help focus our attention on our commitment to Torah and its values. It’s a wake up call, at regular intervals of three days or less[i]. We are commanded to study and perform the Torah. It cannot be ignored even for a day.
Why this obsession with the Torah? Is it that important to be involved with Torah each and every day? Isn’t once a year sufficient? Can’t we just learn the basic ethical lessons once and then just lead virtuous lives? Why the need constantly to study the Torah in all its intricate detail and complexity? Isn’t it enough to charge the Rabbi with this responsibility and just lead our lives, without this added burden?
Don’t we already have enough to do, working very hard to earn a living, please our spouses, meet our family responsibilities, be good neighbors and friends and be constructive members of the society? Is the added burden of studying the Torah every day a luxury we can’t afford or is it a necessity, which we must somehow manage to accommodate in our already overtaxed schedules?
Lest there be any misunderstanding, in my humble opinion, Torah is a necessity. I can’t take credit for this position, because it just mirrors the wisdom of the ages. But that doesn’t answer all these other questions or begin to define why it’s so important in our daily lives. Unfortunately, a thorough analysis of these matters is beyond the scope of one post. But, I hope, please G-d, to be able to write more about these matters in future posts.
I do believe the transition from the Days of Awe to the celebration of the Holiday of Sukkot does offer some insight into these matters. After completing an annual review with G-d and the humbling experience of confessing our sins, we realize how we blew it last year. We rededicate ourselves to doing better in the coming year and immediately throw ourselves into it. We are forced to rebalance ourselves to meet the challenges. No more talk, recriminations, defenses, regretful admissions or answers; it’s back to work and doing it right, this time, we hope. There’s a relevant theme there. It’s about balance.
What the world needs now is balance. It begins with each person achieving personal balance. But, isn’t it obvious that a balanced life makes sense? Yet, declaring this to be axiomatic hasn’t made much of a practical difference in the world. Expressing a desire for balance doesn’t make it so. Good intentions don’t seem to be enough to accomplish the contemplated result. Something more is needed. How then to achieve balance?
Maimonides addressed[ii] the subject of multi-varied personalities and character traits, which people are born with and how each person can, nevertheless, achieve balance. As an expert in Torah, natural science, medicine and meta-physics, he had a unique perspective on the human condition. He stressed the importance of balance on a number of levels. This includes an integrated approach to treating both the body and the soul, which he discusses not only in his religiously oriented literature[iii], but also in his medical treatises[iv]. Yes, the soul; it’s an integral part of the makeup of a person[v]. The melding of the spirituality of the soul with the physicality of the body is a part of what makes a person so unique in creation. The physical health of the body (including the mind) is dependent on the spiritual health of the soul and vice versa. Just like the body, the soul must also be nourished, in order to be healthy and complete. Recognizing this and dealing with it is an essential part of achieving balance.
What are our spiritual needs and how can they be satisfied? Does the Torah play a role in answering these questions? Is Torah study alone the answer or is something more required? How does devotion to Torah serve a purpose, when it comes to achieving balance? Doesn’t it precipitate an imbalance, because of the time it takes away from doing other seemingly more important tasks, like earning a living?
The Talmud, Maimonides and other sages addressed these questions. We are challenged to understand these treasures of ancient wisdom that are so relevant to modern existence and then actualize them in practice, in every day life. When I was first introduced to these sources, as a young student, they seemed so abstract and esoteric. As I reread them today, with the benefit of more than 50 years of life experience since then, they are so real and compelling. They are about our actual lives. I hope to share more of the thoughts of Maimonides and other sages in future posts.
In the meantime, consider two foundational elements in the formulation of the prescription for how to achieve balance, as a part of leading a good life. They are described, conceptually as devotion to Torah, on the one hand and devotion to a worldly occupation, on the other hand. The need to integrate these two critical elements in life characterizes a great deal of the analysis of balance, in Talmudic and Medieval sources. In modern parlance, we often speak about the life-work balance, which is short hand for how to deal with the competing needs of family and work and still allow time for personal leisure activities. The terms, Torah and a worldly occupation, mean no less and so much more.
In the Talmudic period, leisure time was typically defined by the cycle of agricultural activity. The Midrash Tanchuma[vi] describes how, during the months of Adar and Elul, periods of downtime, there were assemblies of people from all over the world, known as Yarchei Kallah. The convocations were held in the Academies of Sura and Pumbedita in Babylonia and the purpose was to engage in intensive Torah study.
However, devotion to Torah was not an activity that could just be limited to twice a year. The performance of the Torah is an integral part of our existence each and every day. There are a myriad of rules that must be followed, involving how we conduct ourselves both in relation to our fellow man and G-d. Performing the Commandments, as prescribed by the Torah, is how the soul is nourished. Thus, we are commanded to devote ourselves to Torah, daily[vii]. The Talmud, though, does recognize that the pressures of life and earning a living can sometimes be nearly overwhelming. It therefore, suggests[viii], that at a minimum, at least some amount of time should be devoted to Torah study each day, even if it is only to recite the Shema in the morning and evening.
The Talmud[ix] discusses the matter of a work-study balance from a number of perspectives. Rava advises his students not to come to the Academy during the month of Nisan (when grain was harvested) nor Tishre (when grapes and olives were pressed). This is because work was plentiful during these times and a person could earn enough income to permit unfettered study of Torah during the rest of the year.
Abaye, though, expresses a different point of view. He asserts that on each and every day of the workweek, Torah study must be combined with a worldly profession. These two essential functions in Jewish life should not be wholly separated. Pursuing work exclusively during designated months and Torah study exclusively at other times is not a sustainable model, in practice. Rather each day of the workweek should have designated times set aside for devotion to Torah.
This concept is also reflected in the teachings of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah in Mishna Avot[x]. He posits that if there is no Torah, then there is no worldly occupation and if there is no worldly occupation, then there is no Torah. Without a worldly occupation, as a reliable regular source of sustenance, a person might be forced to spend an inordinate amount of time trying, often in vain, to earn a livelihood, The result is he will likely have no time at all for Torah or his own family[xi]. Rabbeinu Yona[xii] ascribes a psychological aspect to this dictum. He notes that not being self-supporting has a devastating effect on the person. It destroys his self-esteem. As King Solomon wrote: one who hates gifts will live[xiii]. True life requires a sense of being productive. As Avot[xiv] also states love work. Indeed, the Talmud[xv] urges a person even to flay carcasses in the marketplace in order to earn a living and not say that this kind of work is beneath him. Work provides a sense of dignity and self-worth. Rav Ovadiah Bartenura comments that a person is obligated to be involved in work, even if he doesn’t need to do so, financially. On the other hand, as Rabbeinu Yona also explains, without Torah there is no purpose to the worldly occupation.
Of course, this does not mean there was no time for anything else besides devotion to Torah and earning a living. Maimonides[xvi] speaks about how it is beneficial to listen to music, look at art and stroll in beautiful gardens or other venues. Moreover, while Torah study and a worldly occupation are both fundamental requirements of life, which must be integrated, as a part of a healthy, successful and satisfactory life, it doesn’t end there. Rather they are a predicate to a host of other detailed Commandments to be performed. This includes doing good deeds, having whole-hearted joy, expressing gratitude and guiding our actions with the proper intentions. In this regard, it is important to note that the concept of devotion to Torah is not limited only to Torah study, alone. Indeed, the Talmud[xvii] enjoins us to study Torah for the purpose of performing it. Unless it is performed, any reward for studying it is negated. The Talmud[xviii] also disparagingly refers to the abstract study of Torah, bereft of performance, as akin to addiction to a deadly drug. Nevertheless, intensive study and rigorous academic analysis are required in order to master the subtleties of what is truly right or wrong and how properly to perform the Commandments. For example, sitting in the Sukkah when it rains is not a virtuous act; rather, it is foolish[xix].
Bachya ibn Paquda, in his seminal work, the Duties of the Heart[xx], cites King Solomon’s statement in Ecclesiastes[xxi], which succinctly expresses the concept of balance. A person should not be overly righteous nor overly wicked or a fool. Rav Paquda explains, a person should not separate himself from the world. Rather, he should love to do for his neighbor that which he would love happen to himself [xxii]. He urges us to help each other in Torah and worldly matters. This includes helping with the plowing and harvesting, buying and selling and other societal matters. However, a person should not seek to conquer the world and indulge in his base desires beyond that which is appropriate for his religious and worldly needs.
These are wonderful sentiments. How, though, in practice, in every day life is a person to balance all these competing demands and desires? King Solomon prescribes a useful vehicle for encapsulating and ordering all these activities. He wrote, in Ecclesiastes[xxiii], a person should see life with the wife whom he loves. It is in the context of the family where all these competing priorities get sorted out. Rashi[xxiv] explains that the term life means a combination of both Torah study and a worldly occupation The Metzudot David comments that it must be a good life[xxv], which both spouses enjoy; not a life of privation. Maimonides notes[xxvi] that devotion to Torah study is not about making the family suffer materially; their needs take precedence. He suggests that it’s best for an individual to spend less money on himself and, instead, spend more on his spouse and children. As the Talmud[xxvii] provides, a person must love his spouse like himself and honor his spouse more than himself.
It is suggested that the key to combining Torah study and a worldly occupation, two seemingly antagonistic activities together, as a part of a balanced and good life, is doing them for the higher purpose of benefiting the whole family. The shared efforts and values of two spouses, working in partnership in furtherance of the common goal of bettering the family, is perhaps, one of the most poignant and enduring expressions of this principle.
Devotion to work[xxviii], study of Torah[xxix] and a loving family[xxx] are all Mitzvot. Let’s dedicate ourselves to doing all of them, in balance, in the forthcoming year. It is a part of the secret to a happy and good life.
[i] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma, at page 82a.
[ii] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot.
[iii] Shemonah Perakim (Eight Chapters), Chapter 4.
[iv] Two Treatises on the Regimen on Health (translated from the Arabic and edited in accordance with the Hebrew and Latin versions by Ariel Bar-Sela, M.D., Herbel E. Hoff, M.D. and Elias Faris).
[v] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 91b, as well as, Maimonides Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 1.
[vi] On Parshat Noach, Section 3.
[vii] Joshua 1:8.
[viii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, at page 99b.
[ix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 35b.
[x] Avot 3:17.
[xi] See Sefer HaBris, Ma’amar 12, Chapter 10, by Rav Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz (known as the Hafla’ah).
[xii] See Commentary of Rabbeinu Yona on the text of this Mishna (Avot 3:17), Notes (7) & (8).
[xiii] Proverbs 15:17.
[xv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 113a.
[xvi] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 5.
[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 109b and the Rashi commentary thereon.
[xviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 72b.
[xix] Rema, Orach Chaim 639:7.
[xx] In his introduction to this wok and in the Eighth Treatise, Examining the Soul.
[xxii] Leviticus 19:18.
[xxiv] In his commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:9. See also the Midrash, Kohelet Rabbah, on this verse, which states that the person must acquire a trade or profession together with Torah.
[xxv] See also the Targum on this verse.
[xxvi] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot 5:10.
[xxvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 70a.
[xxviii] See Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sota 9:15 (page 45a of Zhitomer edition), citing Deuteronomy 30:19. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 30b, citing Ecclesiastes 9:9, as well as, Tractate Bava Kamma, at pages 99b-100a, citing Exodus 18:20. Reference may also be made to Exodus 20:9-10. Bachya ibn Paquda notes that even Adam had to work and guard the Garden of Eden, as noted in Genesis 2:15. (See also the Ibn Ezra commentary on this verse.) Rav Paquda also cites Psalms 128:2, which expresses how wonderful it is to for a person to be self-sufficient and earn a living with his own hands
[xxix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 29b, citing Deuteronomy 11:19.
[xxx] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 62b.
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