“[Hillel] used to say, one who seeks a name loses his name, one who does not increase [his knowledge] decreases it (or: will perish), one who does not study deserves death, and one who makes use of the crown [of Torah] will pass away.”
This mishna was authored by Hillel, author of the previous mishna. It consists of a collection of related short sayings, all relating to personal growth and in particular Torah study.
Our mishna is written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew (the distinction, of course, being lost in the translation). Aramaic was the spoken language of that period, as opposed to Hebrew which was the more “official” tongue of Israel. The Talmud was written in Aramaic, whereas almost all of the Mishna (of which Pirkei Avos is a part) was written in Hebrew.
As we will see, the Mishna uses Aramaic for less “formal” statements of our Sages. “Official” statements of policy are generally in Hebrew. Hillel’s words here, however, appear almost conjectural, not precise statements of religious doctrine. There is, of course, no hard and fast rule that one who does not study will die: G-d’s profound justice is never so simplistic. Yet these are the feelings beneath the surface. On a level, this is how G-d’s justice should work. Hillel is telling us the stakes of life — and they are very high. One who does not study — who sees no need for and expends no effort on personal growth — does not deserve the gift of life. Do you enter one Yom Kippur basically the exact same person you were a year earlier — just one year older (and not one year wiser)? If so, G-d has gotten very little out of His investment in you — and there is, G-d forbid, very little to recommend you for the coming year. In practice, G-d’s justice system is far more complex than can be stated in one simple rule. Yet Hillel’s words touch on a profound truth. The stakes of life are high indeed.
As another point of introduction, we note the contrast between this mishna and the previous. Last week Hillel told us how we must relate to others. We are to be students of Aaron, loving mankind, pursuing peace, and patiently bringing our fellows to Torah. This week Hillel looks at our attitude towards ourselves — and he takes a much sterner stance. Love and forbearance are wonderful; they serve as excellent means of promoting world harmony. Don’t look too closely at others’ faults; very little is gained from it
Towards ourselves, however, we cannot be so smug and forgiving. We are in this world to struggle, to grow as individuals, and to realize our own potential. We must study and increase our knowledge, for, as Hillel puts it, if we’re not going up we’re going down. We cannot just be comfortable and content, loving ourselves “just the way we are.” We were not granted 80 or 90 years down here to just sit around being happy with ourselves. We were allotted a precise number of days on this earth, whether fewer or greater, and we were given a mission to accomplish during that time. We must recognize our goals in life and realize them. We must go up, for if we do not — if we are going nowhere in life spiritually — we should not be here in the first place.
Perhaps this provides us with another insight into why Hillel here speaks in Aramaic. This is a mishna of introspection. Last week Hillel advised us in our proper attitude towards others, how we must relate to and influence those perhaps less committed and motivated than ourselves. We must be patient with their foibles and loving in spite of our many differences. This mishna, however, is much closer and more personal: it speaks in the language we talk to ourselves (our “momma lashon”). It does not discuss how we present ourselves to others, what face we put on for society, but who we actually are ourselves. What is our attitude towards Torah study and personal growth, not what do we tell others to do? Sadly, the two questions can well be unrelated. For this reason, Hillel addresses us in Aramaic. This is a very private matter. Talk to yourself, in your own words and language. Don’t just spout the party line or read the Hebrew of the prayer book. Open up your own mouth and speak. Speak to yourself, speak to G-d, seek out your own inner voice. What do you find? Who are you really?
We now begin examining the text of our mishna. As we have seen thus far, Hillel’s focus is almost entirely on introspection and personal growth. His first point — “one who seeks a name loses his name” — clearly relates to this. We must constantly examine our motives in life that they are sincere, that we are not in it for our own honor.
There is another related thought, which I’ll conclude with for this week. Some of the commentators (Rashi, Ru’ach Chaim) relate this point to Torah study. “One who seeks a name” — meaning, he studies Torah for recognition, will never acquire the honor he seeks. Study of lasting value must be done from pure motivations. We must study to gain an understanding of ourselves and of G-d, not in order to somehow enhance our own reputations.
This, however, must be understood in light of another statement of the Sages. Generally, we are told that studying Torah for ulterior motives is quite acceptable and in fact to be encouraged. As the Talmud several times states, insincere study leads to sincere study (Pesachim 50b). The Sages recognize the value of Torah study whatever the motive. The Torah itself imbues its disciples with wisdom. Study out of the most distant and detached curiosity; study for the intellectual stimulation. Study regardless of whether you are fully convinced of the Torah’s authenticity. Whatever your motive, the Torah will work its magic on you. It is not possible to see the beauty and wisdom of G-d and not be moved. Something deep inside of you will stir — and you will not be the same. Ultimately, you will come to study for the love of G-d and His Torah.
(The only exception to the Talmud’s principle is one who studies Torah for no other reason than to mock — although that too has been known to backfire…) 😉
Here however, Hillel, speaking to us personally, puts it more bluntly. Insincere Torah study is great; it will certainly lead to much greater things. In any other context, the Sages have nothing but praise for it. (Besides, that’s what most of us do so much of the time.) But here Hillel is discussing something much more profound: the challenge of life. As we will see further G-d willing next week, our mishna’s primary message is growing as a person and becoming in touch with our purpose in life. And for this we must study the true way. We must study to understand, to find ourselves, and to recognize our place in the universe. Studying for ulterior motives will open our eyes somewhat, but only true study leads us along the way. Our mishna does not write that one must not study for fame — that is far far better than not studying at all — but that it will not work; the fame will not come. Put all such ulterior motives out of mind. In a lasting sense they will get you nowhere — not in acquiring fame (which flees from those who seek it (Talmud Eiruvin 13b)), and not in rising to face the true challenges of life. Rather, study to understand yourself and to discover that glimmer of godliness within you. For when you discover it, you will find true growth and fulfillment, and you will never ever be the same.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.