Insights in Pirkei Avot: Is Torah an Inheritance?

By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva

R. Yossi would say: The property of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own. Prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an inheritance to you. And all your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven. (Avot 2:12)

R. Yossi’s second statement seems to contradict a biblical verse: “Moshe commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4). R. Yisrael Lipschutz explains that the pasuk refers to Torah as an inheritance for the collective Jewish people. Some Jews will always observe Torah but no single individual has a guarantee. Furthermore, the Torah resembles a fixed inheritance in that the law remains eternally binding. Of course, this says nothing about someone born into a scholarly family achieving greatness by virtue of birth.

In fact, a gemara takes the opposite position, arguing that sons of scholars tend to not duplicate their father’s feats precisely so that people not say Torah is an inheritance (Nedarim 81a). That gemara apparently attributes this phenomenon to divine plan. We can also offer some powerful naturalistic explanations for this pattern. Children of famous scholars tend to suffer from exaggerated communal expectations and pressures, parents too busy to give them sufficient time, and a loss of sense of self due to an overwhelming family identity. Indeed, being a child of prominent parents is very much a double edged sword.

Another gemara suggests that once a family has produced three successive generations of scholars, it will invariably maintain a connection to Torah (Bava Metzia 85a). R. Lipschutz refuses to accept the simple meaning of that text. He understands the gemara as conveying that a descendant of such a family might not need to work as hard as another fellow. However, even the scion of rabbinic excellence certainly needs serious commitment and effort. No wisdom or erudition exists without toil and exertion.

Meiri refers to R. Yossi’s final statement as “very significant.” Humanity needs involvement in worldly matters including even the more sensuous and corporeal aspects of human existence. Yet even these activities, given the proper motivation and context, serve God. Mishlei 3:6 says: “Know God in all your ways” and a gemara explains that this verse refers even to a sinful matter (Berachot 63a). Rashi comments that, in rare circumstances, halacha justifies a temporary sin such as when Eliyahu offers sacrifices at Mount Carmel. Meiri, on the other hand, contends that the gemara refers not to actual sins but to aspects of existence that seem more coarse and spiritually barren. A more mature religious attitude understands that these areas also serve as an arena for religious striving.

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