Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Learning and Livelihood - First Things First
While the destiny of most of the fledgling Jewish nation awaited them
on the west banks of the Jordan River (i.e. Israel), the tribes of
Reuven and Gad (who were later joined by part of Menashe) were
shepherds, for whom the green pastures captured east of the Jordan
were just too good to pass up. They approached Moshe with their
If we have found favour in your eyes, let this land [east
of the Jordan] be given to your servants as an
inheritance; do not force us to cross the Jordan... We will
build stables for [our] livestock, and cities for our young...
After some lengthy negotiations, during which they agree to
accompany their brethren into Canaan, and return only after having
captured the land, a settlement is reached. They are granted the lush
marshlands they so desire (32:20-24):
Moshe said to them... build for yourselves cities for your
small children, and stables for your livestock - that which
you have spoken you shall do!
One who is attuned to the nuances of the Torah which are the bread-
and-butter of Scriptural exegesis might have already noticed the small
discrepancy: In their request, the tribes spoke of building the stables
first, then the cities. In Moshe's response, he mentions first cities for
the children, and then stables for the livestock. Even more puzzling,
thus, is his conclusion: "That which you have spoken you shall do,"
considering that according to Moshe's instructions (i.e. the order
reversal), they are not to do as they had spoken!
In Pirkei Avos (The Ethics of the Fathers 3:17), Rabbi Elazar ben
Azarya delineates the inescapable relationship between Torah study
and earning a living: If there is no flour, there is no Torah - if there
is no Torah there is no flour. It's the old which-came-first-the-
chicken-or-the-egg paradox: You can't learn Torah on an empty
stomach, yet if you don't study Torah, perhaps you will not merit
ample sustenance from Hashem. So where is one to start: learning
A wealthy financier was vacationing at the pier of a small European
coastal village when a small boat with a lone fisherman docked.
Inside were several large fish. He asked the fisherman how long it
took to catch them. "Only a short while," he replied. The financier
then asked why didn't he stay out longer, and catch more fish? The
fisherman replied, "I have already made enough to support my family
"So what do you do the rest of the time?" asked the financier. "I say
Tehillim, I study Torah with my children, I have a nap in the
afternoon, and every evening we eat supper as a family. After that, I
study Gemara and Chumash with a friend, my children review what
they learned that day, and we go to bed early in order to be fresh and
alert for tomorrow."
"Listen," said the financier, "I'm a successful businessman, and I
could help you turn your fishing skills into a booming business. You
should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds buy a bigger
boat on which you could catch far more fish. Then you could buy
several boats, and eventually have a fleet. You will move to the big
city and open your own cannery..."
"How long will all this take?" asked the fisherman. "About 15 years,"
replied the tourist.
"Then what?" "Then you would announce an IPO and sell stock in
your company to the public! You'd make millions!"
"Then what?" asked the fisherman. "Don't you see?" said the
magnate. "Then you could retire - move to a small coastal village,
where you could fish a little, learn with your kids, take a nap each
afternoon, and spend the evenings with your friends and family!..."
There is another Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (2:4): "Rabban Gamliel used
to say: Do not say, 'When I will be free, I will learn,' - perhaps you will
not be free." There are times when we all play the role of the
financier. We really, really want to learn, and work on the things that
are important to us; tefilah (prayer), tikkun ha-midos (character
refinement), and avodas Hashem (serving G-d). There are just a few
more things to take care of, and then... We fail to seize the present,
preferring, instead, to push things off just a little - in hope of a rosier
future. After we manage to settle all the little, insignificant details,
then, we tell ourselves, we will be able to devote ourselves fully to the
real purpose of life - becoming a better Jew.
As prudent as this approach may seem, says the Bobover Rebbe zt"l
(whose first yurtzeit is this Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh Av - zechuso
yagen aleinu), if we hearken back to the very infancy of our nation,
its fallacy becomes apparent. After being offered the Torah, we
replied, "Na'aseh ve-nishmah, We will do and we will hear!" We did
not ask for time to think things over, to check our appointment
books (or Palm Pilots (tm)) and figure out if we can fit the Torah into
our schedules. We did not say: Tell us first what we must do, and
then we'll see how and if we can accommodate the Torah.
The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) cites the criticism of a certain heretic:
"Overhasty nation - your mouths speak before your ears listen! You
should have responded, "We will hear and [then] we will do," - if [your
lifestyle] could accommodate the Torah, good, and if not, not." Our
nation did not come into existence by dint of its cautious deliberation
and forethought. We will do - our obligation to Torah and mitzvos
will be our priority and our focus, even before we will hear - and
figure out just how we'll manage it.
If there is no bread, no doubt, there can be no Torah. But do not
make the mistake of thinking this means one should push off Torah
study until he has, so to speak, more than enough "bread." (And is
there ever really enough?) For if there is no Torah there is no bread -
even if we succeed in amassing wealth and comfort, what is it all
worth if we lose sight of what should really be the focus of our lives?
This, says the Rebbe zt"l zy"a, was the error of the tribes of Gad and
Reuven. Their first concern was to build stables for their livestock - to
make sure their professional lives were in order, and there would be
ample bread on the table. Only then would they begin thinking about
cities (which according to the Midrash [Koheles Rabbah 9:7] refers
to houses of prayer and study) for their children.
While in principle Moshe conceded to their plan, he took issue with
their motus operandi. First, he said, make sure the children are
looked after. They, after all, are the future of our nation. Only then
should you look into taking care of your flocks. And as your mouths
have spoken you shall do - just like you spoke at Har Sinai, when
you said "Na'aseh ve-nishmah, We will do (first!) and [then] we will
The Rebbe zt"l zy"a arrived in America in the wake of the devastation
of WWII. By any count, the notion of rebuilding the Bobov dynasty to
even a whisper of its previous glory was unthinkable. Any rational
person would have said (and there were many who did!): How can we
even consider rebuilding institutions of Torah and chassidus NOW -
when everyone is simply wondering how to make it to tomorrow?!
First let us reestablish ourselves on the new frontier, let us find our
footing and settle down - then we can consider how to go about
One Erev Shabbos, the Rebbe zt"l used to tell, he was accompanied
to the mikvah (ritual bath) by a close acquaintance. As they walked,
the Rebbe dreamed aloud about how one day - soon - he would build
a Talmud Torah, a girl's school, a Mesivta. Money was scarce,
manpower was even scarcer - but there was no time to wait. As they
reached the mikvah, the Rebbe turned to his companion. "By the
way - could you lend me a quarter for the mikvah?"
The words Na'aseh ve-nishmah, as the Rebbe zt"l zy"a so eloquently
explained their message, were no doubt emblazoned in his prophetic
vision. The Torah will not wait for us - we must do all we can to seize
the moment. May the merit of his holy neshama protect us.
Have a good Shabbos.