Taking care
Guest post at God's Politics

Balancing learning and work

The next Talmud text I'm responsible for reprising with my two hevruta partners (study buddies) is a passage about the tension between Torah study and worldly work, from Brachot 35b. It's a nifty teaching, and surprisingly relevant in today's world. (The Jerusalem Post just published an article about it a few weeks ago, Let the Torah not depart by R' Levi Cooper.) I'm guessing it may resonate for many of y'all, as it does for me.

We begin with the prooftext "And you shall gather in your grain." That's Deuteronomy 11:14, and the rabbis of the Talmud ask: what does this verse mean to teach us? Rabbi Ishmael offers, well, we learn in Joshua 1:8 that "the book of this teaching shall not depart from your mouth," and one might imagine therefore that we're supposed to never stop studying Torah, so this verse from Deuteronomy is here to remind us that we also need to work toward worldly sustenance.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai disagrees. If a man plows in the plowing season, he argues, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season -- in other words, if he occupies himself all year long with the component acts of getting food on the table -- what will become of Torah? He brings a couple of prooftexts to show that if a person does God's will (and, one assumes, studies Torah all the time) then others will do his work for him -- whereas if a person doesn't do God's will, he winds up doing not only his own labor but also laboring on behalf of others.

Abayye pops in to note, rather archly I think, that those who've taken Rabbi Ishmael's advice and had "real jobs" in addition to learning Torah: things have gone well for those guys. But those who've followed the advice of Rabbi Shimon, focusing solely on learning in the hopes that God will provide the worldly material of living, haven't had it so good.

And then Raba tells his students, "I wouldn't have you appear before me during Nisan and Tishri, lest you be anxious about your food supply during the rest of the year." This fascinates me. If I'm reading him right, he seems to be saying: look, don't even come to yeshiva during the harvest months. Stay home and bring in your grain. Ensure that you have what to eat for the year. Then you'll be better able to focus on Torah study when you are here learning! If you try to come in here during harvest-time, some part of your consciousness is going to be back there in the fields, worrying about whether the rain will fall and spoil your harvest. You can't do justice to Torah study with that kind of anxious or bifurcated consciousness.

It occurs to me, also, that the two seasons he mentioned are spiritually significant as well as agriculturally significant. (Not surprising; our spiritual cycle follows the old agricultural model in a lot of ways.) Nisan is the spring month during which Passover falls, and it's the month when we begin counting the Omer, moving through the matrix of divine qualities week by week as we tread the passage between Pesach and Shavuot. And Tishri is the month during which the Days of Awe and Sukkot fall, and that's the month when we reach the culmination of the autumn process of spiritual discernment and teshuvah.

Maybe Rava is subtly suggesting that as we harvest our physical crops during those two times of year, we can also be harvesting something internal, the fruits of our year-round learning. Today few of us are farmers, but we still struggle with the dichotomy between earning our wages and making time to learn -- and we still struggle with the dichotomy between the need to harvest intellectual learning (Torah study) and the need to harvest spiritual/emotional learning (internal work.) Rava might be saying, twice a year it's healthy for you to dive deep into internal work. Let the intellectual learning rest for a few weeks, because you need to do this other kind of harvesting too.

The need to balance Torah study with worldly work is not new. I might have imagined that for the rabbis of the Talmud, the ideal state would be one of constant Torah study -- as Rabbi Shimon seems to suggest -- but the rest of his colleagues disagree with him on that. Indeed, Rabban Gamaliel argues (in Avot 2:2) that studying Torah without a worldly occupation leaves room for sin to arise, whereas studying Torah and having a worldly occupation is an excellent combination which keeps one spiritually healthy! (And even Rabbi Shimon's insistence on studying Torah at all times is tempered eventually; elsewhere in Talmud, he teaches that simply reading the Shema twice a day can count as a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of studying Torah day and night.)

The ideal seems to be balancing Torah study with worldly work. Or maybe it's deeper than that: not only balancing Torah and worldly work, but integrating the two. Not eschewing the mundane world in order to live an "elevated" intellectual life, nor attempting to live by "bread alone" without intellectual and spiritual learning, but doing both together.

This was the penultimate sugya that we studied in the 14 Sugyot Every Jew Should Know class at the CY Online this spring. I would have made it the final lesson. It offers such a beautiful send-off, a way of reminding us that the challenges of balancing life and learning are perennial and that we walk in the steps of our great teachers when we aim to integrate the two.


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