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.
This fourth pair of Tanaim is coming to teach musar about how to relate to those with whom you have less connection than in the earlier Mishnayoth. A person in a position of authority, where he exerts controls over other people (political power) has some attachment to those over whom he rules. But this attachment is weaker than a judge has with the community over whom he has authority. For a judge (generally) performs his job for the welfare of the community that he judges, while people who exert communal power (generally) are motivated by their self interest, minimizing their true attachment to their constituents. Additionally, there is usually a fear that the constituents feel flowing from the power these people exert, which minimizes the attachment they have with the people.
As in previous Mishnayoth, this pair of Tanaim is coming to perfect a leader from both perspectives, love and fear.
First, the Name of Heaven should become cherished and loved through the wise people. We are taught (Yoma 86a) based on the verse “And you should love G-d…” that the Name of Heaven should become beloved through you. A person should study and review Torah, serve Torah scholars, speak politely with others, and conduct his business dealings honestly and agreeably. What do people say about such a person? “Ashrei” (steadfast) is this person who has learned Torah. How beautiful are his ways, how perfected are his deeds. To this person can be applied the verse “They have said to Me: You are my servant, Israel, that in you I become glorified.”
(One of the responsibilites of the Jewish people is to bring about the glorification of G-d in the world. G-d writes that he is “made proud” by us. This is one of the reasons for the severity of chilul HaShem — it contravenes the purpose of creation, having man recognize and appreciate the wonderful nature of G-d and His Torah.)
(A word of explanation of the word “kavod” which is about to be introduced. While it is translated as “honor” the root of the word is “kaveid” which means “heavy” or “weighty.” The opposite is “kal” – which means “light(weight)” and “zol” which means “cheap.” When we speak about honor from a Torah perspective, we refer to recognizing something for what it truly is, giving the “weight” it deserves. It implies a stability and significance. Its opposite implies not taking something seriously, with no stability, no significance. “It could be like this, or it could be the opposite, it doesn’t really matter.” That is a statement of “zilzul,” cheapness and light-headedness. Even the Hebrew word implies it: the doubling of the letters in the word “zol.”)
One of the things which is “kavod” for the Torah and kavod for the Almighty, which causes G-d to be loved (love of G-d = people have the desire to attach to Him) is that Torah scholars are independent, and not dependent on others. Look at the lies told by Jews in finding fault with Moshe Rabbeinu. And from the false criticism leveled against him, we can project how terrible it would have been had the claims been true.
The Yerushalmi (Shekalim Chapter 5, Halacha 2; see also Bavli Kiddushin 33b; Shemoth Rabba 51:4) teaches us on the verse (Shemoth 33:8) “…and the people looked after Moshe” that there is one opinion that they looked at Moshe with criticism, and another opinion that they looked at him admiringly. The opinion that they were critical of Moshe had the people saying: “Look at his legs, look at his neck, (how fat they are) look at HOW fleshy his body is. [He consumes so much and] what he eats comes from the Jewish people, and what he drinks comes from the Jewish people, and all that he has comes from the Jewish people (he got rich off of us!). The opinion that they looked after Moshe admiringly had them saying “Look at the tzadik – how beneficial just to see him; how wonderful it is for the opportunity to see him.”
The criticism (that Moshe Rabbeinu became wealthy from what he took from the people) was simply false. His wealth was acquired from the remnants of the tablets that G-d had him carve out. But how terrible a criticism of Moshe it would have been had their accusation been true!
This exact situation is what has led, nowadays through our sins, to a lack of respect for the Torah in the eyes of the people. For if those who taught Torah wouldn’t be dependent on the people for their livelihood, respect for Torah would ascend to greater and greater heights. The Torah learners could also rebuke the community when necessary, with no need to try to please them and tell them what they want to hear. Since the Torah learners are responsible for the guilt of the community (whom they did not direct in the proper ways; see Rashi Devarim 1:13) this situation becomes especially detrimental. However, now that Torah learners are dependent on people (for their livelihood) we have a situation where every Rabbi and Torah teacher has acquired an “owner” (and is beholden to him).
For this reason, Shmaya teaches us to love work, as well as to despise positions of power that distance us from work. One should not think that work is not respectable, and it is below his dignity (kavod). The opposite is true. It is work which can accord a person “kavod.”
The Gemara teaches us (Nedarim 49b) that when Rebbi Yehuda would go to the Beith Midrash, he would carry a stone pitcher on his shoulder (to sit on when he got there), saying “great is work, which honors (‘mechabedeth’) the one who does it (since now he does not have to sit on the floor, but can sit in a more respectable way). (I wonder if there might be a play on words her, for the word “mechabedeth” can also be interpreted as meaning “weighs down” the one who does it. The pitcher was weighing him down, while enabling him to sit with “kavod” in the Beith Midrash.) Rebbi Yehuda is telling us not to think that something like carrying a pitcher does not befit him. Rather, “great is work” if through it he avoids the contempt of others brought about by the need to beg from them (or become beholden to them in some other way). In his case, carrying a pitcher on his shoulder in order for him to sit on it in the Beith Midrash was not degrading, but rather an activity to bring himself more respect (enabling to sit in a respectable way while learning Torah). And this was Rebbi Yehuda’s intention when he said that work brings respect to the doer, since his work was bringing him more respect (rather than less).