Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah says:
If someone takes upon himself the yoke of Torah – the yoke of government and yoke of worldly responsibilities are removed from him.
But if someone throws off the yoke of Torah from himself – the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are placed upon him.
Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah lived at the time of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. He was well known for his humility and spirituality.
There are a lot of dimensions to these words of wisdom, let’s look at just a few.
On the most obvious level – the study of Torah is important. So important that those engaged in it deserve the support of the larger community. The larger community values the study of Torah so much that it will pick up the tasks the student might have otherwise have done and take care of them. The community does this because while the study of Torah is important for the individuals engaged in it – it is understood as central to the very life of the community as well.
How could this study be so important for the community?
- They remind all of us of what we truly value.
- They provide examples for us by the way they live their lives in response to the wisdom they have gained.
- They are a resource for us when we need guidance, wisdom or instruction.
- They preserve for our community our traditions, experiences, stories, and more. They (at least ideally) embody our identity.
Now, it is certainly true that all of this comes with some downsides as well. There is a tendency, for both Jewish communities and Catholic ones, to say – “they are taking care of all of that for us all, we don’t need to do anything but pay for it”. When this attitude sets in it can be hard to break! The sad thing is that the whole community is then diminished by seeing this as simply a division of labor. It is much more important than that! They get to engage in full-time study – but we too can engage in study in our open time, and should.
For the Christians reading this – Torah represents both the written tradition of Scripture but also the oral traditions that surround and inform it. Torah represents very much what Catholics understand as Scripture and Tradition (with a capital T). We also value this study so much that in our systems our graduate seminaries are free for our seminarians – they do not have to take out loans, they do not have to work while they go to school.
In part two of the saying comes the flip side – everyone in the community is expected to contribute to the community. No one gets a “free” ride. Once contributes by study of the Torah (no easy task) or by doing the tasks associated with governing or worldly responsibilities. It is not an option to do nothing. Clearly we are talking here about folks who have the ability to do things that contribute – and almost everyone IS able to do something to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. There are some folks whose personal or life situations are so overwhelming that the community would exempt them, at least for the time being, from their responsibilities.
Another dimension – in what sort of environment does our study take place? While there is a place for study by ourselves – the primary place to study Torah / Scripture is together – to engage in discussion, debate, to learn from others and to teach others, to share the Word of God.
A last thought – a lot of our Jewish and Christian traditions is caught up in the very idea of a “yoke”. A yoke is placed upon beasts of burden such as horses oxen or cattle so that the hard work of plowing might be done. I have seen Amish farmers in Pennsylvania working long days in their fields under the hot sun – and I do not envy them the task! Are we to think about study of scripture and the LORD’s word as this sort of task?
There is no doubt that the rabbinic tradition considers the opportunity to study Torah to be a gift to us from both God and the community, a “sweet task”, a joy. And that is our Christian emphasis as well. The day a seminarian begins to come to classes and worship full of complaints about how hard it is and how distasteful they find the work to be is the day they need to be show the door!