Torah’s Crown: How is it Attained

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Howard Salamon

Such is the way [of a life] of Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor. If you do this, “Happy shall you be and it shall be good for you” (Psalms 128:2): “Happy shall you be” in this world, “and it shall be good for you” in the world to come. (Avos 6:4)

Rashi comments:

It is not saying it about the wealthy one that he should place himself in a life of pain in order to study Torah. But rather, this is what it is saying: Even if a person only has bread with salt, etc. and he does not have a pillow and blanket to sleep [on], but rather [must sleep] on the ground, he should not refrain from involvement in [Torah study]; as in the end, he will study it in wealth.

This mishnah describes the degree of value one has for Torah study. Torah study is indispensable to his life because it is the core of his life. This is due to the amazing enjoyment derived from thought, and uncovering Torah’s endless wisdom. Torah is God’s wisdom, so this must be the case. 

There is no other consideration that would remove his yearning and fiery interest in continuously uncovering God’s brilliance. Even if impoverished, and with no home, he could not take his mind off Torah study. This is the degree of attachment that is required. If one were given a full week to take as much gold as he could from a treasury, he would not let his eyes sleep, and he would not waste time eating. But he would carry as much gold he could with relentless effort until he collapsed from exhaustion. The true Torah student—the person who learns for the sake of Torah and no ulterior motive (lishma)— values Torah in an even greater degree: “The judgments of the Lord are true, righteous altogether, more desirable than gold” (Psalms 19:10,11). No other interest surpasses it, as nothing else in life offers such intense pleasure. It is an endless journey that always presents unexpected marvels.

The Torah life can be achieved equally by a wealthy person, as we see Rabbi Judah the prince and Rabbi Tarfon were very wealthy and were great Torah minds. Rather, as Rashi states above, this mishnah describes the required attitude of a person living the proper Torah lifestyle. Torah is only discovered with an unrelenting pursuit; both poor and rich people can demonstrate this level. 

Discovering Torah’s brilliance is not a simple task and requires great energies. It requires a sustained search, and not something studied casually once a month, once a week or once a day. Torah study occupies the major focus of his day, every day. Torah’s depth, breadth, precision and subtleties are what demand such sustained dedication, patience and deep thought. If one does not study daily, his mind wanders to other areas and he loses the momentum, which is also required to excel. Torah study today, is built on Torah studied yesterday. But if there are gaps in a person’s learning, and he forgets, he has to rebuild: “Abandon me (Torah) one day, I will abandon you two days” (Sifrei Devarim 48:8; Jerusalem Talmud end of Berakhot). He lost the content, and he also lost the steps that he took in his mind, so he must rehash and rebuild. Rabbi Israel Chait once said, “No one ever became successful unless he was head and shoulders immersed in his pursuit.” The same applies to Torah study.

The mishna continues:

Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not covet honor. Practice more than you learn. Do not yearn for the table of kings, for your table is greater than their table, and your crown is greater than their crown, and faithful is your Employer to pay you the reward of your labor.

One who studies Torah for its own sake also develops finer ethics. Here's amazement with God and his wisdom overshadows any other interest, including the self. He does not view himself with importance, so he has no need for greatness or to gain honor through his abundant knowledge. Moses had the greatest knowledge and also was the most humble man: “Moses himself was exceedingly humble, more so than any other human being on Earth” (Num. 122:3). With his tremendous knowledge, Moses had the greatest appreciation for the disparity between God and man, thereby engendering in him the greatest degree of humility. One does not engage in self-aggrandizement when awestruck by God and His Torah wisdom. This humility is the true barometer of the person who studies for the sake of study alone, and not honor or leadership. He also does not envy the wealth of kings as it does not register on him as greater than wisdom.

Why must the Torah student “eat bread with salt, drink rationed water and sleep on the ground?” He doesn’t have to, if he has wealth. But if he lost it or never had wealth, this would not impede his yearning for life’s greatest treasure and pleasure. Torah is God’s wisdom. To unlock its brilliance requires a sharp mind which is earned only through sustained study. The dissatisfaction with mediocrity propels a Torah lover to persist in his questions until he uncovers stupendous ideas.