Shmaya and Avtalyon received (the tradition) from them (Yehuda ben Tabai and Shimon ben Shatach). Shmaya says: Love work; despise public office; and don’t become known to (become intimate with) politicians.
(The words of the Maharal on the first half of the Mishna need to studied carefully to properly apply them in our times. The message of this Mishna is that Talmidei Chachamim, Torah scholars, must behave in ways that bring them respect and independence. Ideally, they should not be dependent on others for their livelihood, in order that they should not be looked down upon, and so they should be able to speak their minds freely. If this was not a common situation in the time of the Maharal — as he implies — it is an even less common situation in our times. Due to the diminished level of Torah scholarship compared to earlier generations — we spend months struggling to understand a small section of one Masechet or section of Tanach with a couple of commentaries, while these commentaries themselves were fluent in ALL sections of the Talmud, Tanach, Midrash, etc. — without many years of full time devotion to Torah study one is unlikely to reach anywhere near the upper echelons of expertise in Torah. It is no different than the path that must be followed by the greatest research scientists, jurists, etc. They need to be funded to immerse themselves exclusively in their disciplines. But this is exactly the situation which, the Maharal points out, leads to an attitude of disdain by the people towards students of Torah. (Why is it true towards students of Torah and not of students of law or biology? Food for thought.) And it hampers Rabbis, educators and leaders from speaking their mind, having the feeling that their livelihood or the viability of their institutions is dependent on the goodwill of their board of directors or financial supporters. Does that facilitate their ability to tell the people what they NEED to hear, or pressure them to tell them what the WANT to hear…)
“Love work,” for it is work which distances a person from sin (due to the responsibility and sense of accomplishment achieved through work) and accords a person honor and respect. And “despise public office (positions of power over others),” for it is power over others, distancing a person from work, that leads to many sins. (Controlling other people is itself an improper thing. And the power of having control, the arrogance, and the attitude that others should be serving him are all sources of many sins.) Additionally, responsibility for the sins of the community lies with a person of power who had the ability to protest the improper communal behavior. (See Shabbath 55a; Sukka 29b; Sanhedrin 103a on the verse in Melachim II 24:9; all on the topic of the responsibility of one who had the ability to protest improper behavior and didn’t.)
“And don’t become known to (intimate with) people of power.” This is how far a person is supposed to distance himself from assuming power over others — to even distance himself from people who have that power. For no good comes to a person through his involvement with people of power, since their only interest is in furthering their own agendas. They have no interest in the welfare of those who attempt to become close to them. The nature of political power and control is to distance and separate those who exert it from the rest of population. The structure of a position of power is that it exists independently of and separate from the people, rather than being connected and attached to them. Therefore, any approach made by people of power to help others must be motivated by their own self-interest. For if it was done for the benefit of others, this itself would create an attachment with others, and we have pointed out that a position of power exists as an inherently remote and separate entity. (Later we will discuss the seemingly cynical nature of this attitude towards leaders and politicians, and present the proper Torah way of a communal leader who wants to avoid these problems.)
It doesn’t simply teach us “choose work” but rather “love work,” implying a stronger attachment. To better understand Chazal’s intention, we need to understand a difficult section in the Gemara in Berachoth (8a).
“Greater is one who enjoys (“neheneh,” also translated as “benefits from”) what he achieves (lit: struggles or reaches) with his own hands, than one who fears Heaven. About the former it is written (Tehillim 128:2) ‘ashrecha (you are strong and validated) v’tov lach (and it is good for you)’, ‘ashrecha’ in this world and ‘tov lach’ in the world to come. About the latter it is written (Tehillim 112:1) ‘Ashrei is the man who fears G-d.’ ”
(To better understand the word “ashrei” which appears in both verses, please refer back to what we wrote in Mishna 3, part 1, DC1_031.)
Why should the one who enjoys what he reaches with his own hands be exalted on two levels, both in this world and in the world to come, (“ashrei” and “tov lach”) while the one who fears G-d is praised only on the level of “ashrei (which includes both worlds together)!?”
A person who enjoys that which he reaches through his own efforts and accomplishments is literally a self-sufficient person, one whose needs are modest, those needs being limited to whatever G-d has given him. If his needs were always beyond what he had, he could never ENJOY what he had achieved. (He would always be focused on what he had NOT yet acquired.) One who suffices with what G-d gives him, as evidenced by his ability to enjoy and benefit from it, is never deficient, never missing anything. It is this completeness which enables him to be strong and validated in both the world to come as well as in this world. The totality of existence encompasses both this world and the world to come. A person who is complete, who is missing nothing, acquires a firmly established existence, which includes existence in this world (ashrecha in this world) and eternally (v’tov lach in the world to come). A person who is lacking something is considered deficient, and deficiency is the first step to ultimate to disintegration (unless man is engaged in a dynamic process of filling that deficiency). So a person who does not feel fulfilled with what G-d has given him, who feels there is something he does not have that he needs, is, by definition, a deficient person, and as such lacks a firmly established existence.
(The problem that always arises at this point in understanding the Maharal is: What about ambition? What about personal striving and goals? What about man’s own responsibility for his destiny and welfare? (“Hishtadlus,” effort and attempts, in the mussar terminology.) Are we to sit back and simply say “Whatever G-d gives me is enough,” even if that will be bread and water, or even less?
(The answer lies in identifying WHY we want to accomplish our goals, what is motivating our ambition, what do we want to do with what G-d gives us. If we are motivated by PERSONAL goals, our PERSONAL agenda, then we will always feel that we are missing something, and we will always be deficient, and lack a stable existence. If, however, we are constantly focused on SERVING, on recognizing that whatever resources G-d has given us are tools to be used exclusively to serve Him, then it gives a completely different dimension to our ambition. I can’t be called upon to serve G-d with resources I don’t have. And any resources I have are to be used exclusively to serve Him. This changes my entire attitude to material pursuits, the way I try to achieve my goals, and my attitude to both success and failure. If G-d gives me $10,000, I will use $10,000 to serve G-d. And if He gives me $100,000 or $1 million, then I will serve Him with that. My pursuit of money (or any other goal) takes on a different dimension, since it is motivated solely by my desire and commitment to use it to serve G-d. If my efforts are not successful, if G-d did not provide me with those resources, then I will only be held responsible for serving Him with the resources I received. The more He gives me, the more will be expected of me, and the more I will have to “deliver.” This is the attitude of a person committed to SERVE, and as we will see next week, is the underlying secret of the very difficult Gemara in Berachoth.)