Rabbi Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, says:
Torah study is good together with an occupation, for exertion of them both makes sin forgotten.
Study of the Scriptures and Tradition is a good thing in general, this is something we have noted in previous posts. We receive guidance for our journey from them both, we learn what God intends for us individually as well as collectively. We gain strength through them.
What is new, then, in this saying, is the linking of study with an occupation. And, as usual, there isn’t just one stream of thought that comes out of this linking but several.
Firstly – there is the idea that study of Scripture and Tradition should be undertaken along with a practical occupation through which one supported oneself and one’s family. As desirable as study may be – it does not generally exempt us from the practical task of earning money to feed ourselves and our children. And conversely, as desirable as an occupation may be – it does not generally exempt us from the important task of learning our faith, learning about the LORD, and learning the why of our existence. Wisdom teaches us, then, that both study and work are needed to keep our lives in balance.
We see this in our own experiences today. Study provides insight into our work and our world and ourselves. Work provides a context for what we are learning. Don’t we often dismiss some PhDs who have only studied and not worked outside of academia as being “out of touch” with reality sometimes?
There have been some times in the history of our church when priests and monks and others worked a regular job alongside of their pastoral and study duties for precisely this reason!
Another stream of thought, in both the rabbis and our Christian tradition, upheld the ideal for at least some folks to spend all their waking time engaged in study. It was felt that this was the highest possible use of one’s time, an ideal to be held up for the community at large. Study was so important that these folks are dedicating their entire lives to it! In this approach it became the duty of the larger community to support those engaged in study.
While this was an ideal – this approach tended to “excuse” the larger community from its own obligation to study alongside their work. A “separation” of duties (You do the studying, we do the working) tended to develop – to the loss of what the wisdom was suggesting I think.
An entirely different way of reading the saying is to argue that one must study and then put the study into action in one’s own life. This reads “occupation” as “work” or “life”. This is certainly an expectation of the larger wisdom tradition and something that other sayings remind us – that knowledge that is not actually applied in one’s life does not have the same value for us or for the community as knowledge that IS applied in one’s life does. I do not read Rabbi Gamliel’s saying as intending this understanding however – an occupation implies to me that which I do for money in the world to support myself and my family.
The saying concludes by talking about our efforts in study and occupation making sin “forgotten”. It certainly does, doesn’t it? If we are busy in study and work (and with family life) there isn’t enough time to get into trouble! Another wisdom saying makes this connection clearly: “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”.
In a subtle way this saying calls us to a proper balance in our lives. Many of us today (and throughjout history) have lives that are out of balance. We work too much and neglect both our families and our faith (with its need for study).
We are called to many things, not one thing only. Multiple things or tasks – in their proper balance. It’s not easy to do this and it never will be. But if we can get this right a lot of things will shift into place. Life won’t magically become easy for us but it will be ordered and meaningful. That’s probably all (!) that we can expect.