It is customary to recite one chapter of Pirkei Avos after mincha on each Shabbos between Pesach and Shavuos. This Shabbos we recite the second chapter in which we find, “יָפֶה תַּלְמוּד תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ שֶׁיְּגִיעַת שְׁנֵיהֶם מְשַׁכַּחַת עָוֹן/Learning Torah is better with a worldly occupation because the exertion of both cause sin to be forgotten.” In a mishna in the third chapter we find, “ כָּל הַמְקַבֵּל עָלָיו עוֹל תּוֹרָה מַעֲבִירִין מִמֶּנּוּ ... עוֹל דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ/The yoke of … a worldly occupation is removed from whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah” This seems to contradict the first mishna. If accepting the yoke of Torah causes the yoke of a worldly occupation to be removed, then it is apparently better not to have both. Yet the first mishna states that it is better to occupy oneself with both. How can these two mishnayos be reconciled?
The different wording of the two mishnayos indicates that they are referring to different aspects of Torah learning. The first mishna refers to תַּלְמוּד תּוֹרָה/learning Torah whereas the second mishna refers to עוֹל תּוֹרָה/the yoke of Torah. What is the difference between learning Torah and the yoke of Torah? The Sfas Emes explains that there are two types of Torah learning. We learn Torah in order to know how to act, how to fulfill the mitzvos. We also learn Torah in order to subjugate our desires and will to that of God. We accept the Torah’s teaching even when it conflicts with the results of our own thought process.
The first mishna is referring to learning Torah in order to know how to act and fulfill the mitzvos. The Sfas Emes understands דֶּרֶך אֶרֶץ/a worldly occupation as broadly referring to all physical activities.
What exactly is meant by “learning Torah with physical activity”? Mitzvos, and by extension all physical activity, are potentially holy. They are tools that we can use to draw holiness into the physical world. All holiness derives from the Torah. When we fulfill mitzvos, or perform any physical activity, intending thereby to achieve God’s will, we transform mundane physical activity into something holy. We are then using the physical activity as a means for revealing its spiritual essence. So, we learn Torah in order to know how to act. Then we act with the intent that our actions are fulfilling the will of God.
This is not a simple task since our physical eyes see physical actions. We do not see the potential for holiness. The Zohar, in fact teaches us that striving to draw holiness into this world through the mitzvos cannot be attained lightly. It requires hard work. The mishna calls this work “יְגִיעַת שְׁנֵיהֶם/exertion of both of them. The mishna calls achieving this unity, “תַּלְמוּד תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ/learning Torah with physical activity.”
The second mishna refers to the yoke of Torah and the yoke of physical activity. What does the Tanna mean when he speaks of the yoke of something? A yoke is a burden. The Sfas Emes explains that a burden means a barrier separating us from God. Revelation, the removal of the barrier, can be defined as the removal of the burden.
The yoke of physical activity, then, means that the physical is acting as a barrier preventing us from experiencing God. When the barrier is removed, we experience God in the physical world and no longer feel a burden.
The yoke of Torah, according to this understanding, means that the Torah itself acts as a barrier between us and God. The Torah is a barrier when we reach a point in our learning of not understanding – a point at which there is a conflict between the result of our own thought process and the teaching of the Torah. It is a burden because it is difficult to accept that which defies our understanding.
It is at that level that God is hidden from us. It is at that level that we are nevertheless required to accept, to subordinate our own intelligence to that of the Torah, of God. When we do this, God reveals Himself helping us to understand so that we can then delve deeper and reach a new level at which we do not understand. Then our work is to bear the burden of the new deeper level.
When we choose to accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Torah – to accept the burden of subordinating our own intelligence to that of the Torah – then God removes the barriers presented by the physical world. As Chazal taught, “The yoke of the physical is removed from the one who accepts the yoke of Torah.”
Why is this so? The purpose of the barrier is to hide God so that we have space in which to function and grow. But the person who accepts the Torah, even that which he does not understand, has chosen his own barrier. He has raised the bar to a higher level. The physical barrier is no longer necessary. It is therefore removed. This is what Chazal mean when they say, “בַּטֵּל רְצוֹנָךְ מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנוֹ כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל רְצוֹן אֲחֵרִים מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנָךְ/Subordinate your own will to His so that He may subordinate the will of others to yours.” “The will of others” here refers to the reality of the physical world. When we accept the yoke of Torah, subordinating our own will to God’s, we are given the ability to see beyond the physicality of the world around us and to experience the presence of God.
May we merit learning Torah to know what to do and learning Torah as a means of coming close to God.