Torah Study: Rest for Body and Soul

It is written, “Issachar is a bony donkey, crouching down between the stables. He saw rest, that it was good; and the land, that it was pleasant. He bowed his shoulder to bear, and he became a servant of taskwork” (Genesis 49:14-15).

In Rashi’s commentary, which we all study, he writes: “ ‘Issachar is a bony donkey’ – he is a donkey with solid bones. He carries the yoke of the Torah like a donkey loaded with a heavy burden (Bereshith Rabba 99:9).” Our Sages have said that when we study Torah we must be like an ox that carries a yoke and like a donkey that carries a load (Avodah Zarah 5b). The Midrash states: “ ‘Crouching down between the stables’ – like a donkey that walks day and night from city to city. When it wants to rest, it stops somewhere between the cities where brought its merchandise. ‘He saw rest, that it was good’ – he received a blessed and productive land as his inheritance. ‘He bowed his shoulder to bear’ – to the yoke of the Torah. ‘He became a servant of taskwork’ – he provided all his brothers with the teachings of the Torah, and he knew how to number the years, as it is written: ‘Of the children of Issachar, men with understanding for the times, to know what Israel should do’ [I Chronicles 12:32]” (Bereshith Rabba 98:12).

Jacob’s blessing to Issachar concerns the yoke of the Torah and the legal decisions that regulate Israel’s conduct.

Despite everything, however, the verse still remains obscure. If it concerns the yoke of the Torah, why does it state, “He saw rest, that it was good,” for there is no rest in the study of Torah, neither during the day nor the night. Since it is also stated, “He bowed his shoulder to bear,” why is the burden of the Torah compared to resting between cities? If there is rest, there is no burden (this question was asked by the director of our Kollel, Rabbi Waknine, the administrator of Ateret Israel yeshiva).

The word 9/( (“donkey”) has a numerical value of 248, indicating that he carries the yoke of the Torah with the 248 members of his body – like a donkey with solid bones – and that he puts all his energies into occupying himself with the Torah. The word .9# (“bony”) points to the Gemara that he studies both day and night, and “between the stables” means between the pages of the Gemara. He employs all his bodily members in occupying himself with the Torah both day and night; such is his rest and the essential part of his trade.

His rest and delight in this world are to occupy himself with the Torah by using all his bodily members (Torah Kohanim, Leviticus 26:3). He sees the fruits of his labors and is called “wise” because “he understands things on his own” (Hagigah 14a). He is an expert with “understanding for the times” because he has acquired a taste for Torah, as it is written: “Taste and see that the L-RD is good” (Psalms 34:9).

The one who occupies himself with Torah day and night in this world is rewarded in the next world, the world of rest and our true heritage, as it is written: “There is hope for your future” (Jeremiah 31:16). The one who experiences true pleasure in Torah and understands its worth will become its servant. He will take advantage of every opportunity to study and not lose time in pursuing frivolous affairs. He will then experience true rest and real delight, and his efforts will be rewarded. People will say of such a person: “Happy is the one who was raised in Torah, who carries the yoke of Torah, and who pleases his Creator” (Berachot 17a). In addition, he “advances from strength to strength” (Psalms 84:8) in order to arrive at his true destination, which is the next world. It is there that he will receive the full wages of his efforts, since “there is no reward in this world for obeying the commandments” (Kiddushin 39b).

The verse in question states, “He bowed his shoulder to bear,” meaning that instead of seeking peace and tranquility, a person should bear the yoke of the Torah. In fact he should submit himself to it, like a worker who fulfills his duty, so that by his work (or even by going into exile if necessary) he becomes pleasing to his Master and Creator (Berachot 17a). It is then that he will resemble a “bony donkey, crouching down between the stables” – when he takes the path of exile in order to study elsewhere.

The Talmud recounts that Elazar ben Arach asked his colleagues to accompany him to the city where his wife lived, a city famous for the purity of its waters and the abundance of its springs. However his colleagues declined his request, and because he went there alone he forgot everything he had learned.

We should reflect upon this story. Is it possible to believe that Elazar ben Arach wanted to neglect his Torah study so he could rest, and that he invited his colleagues to do the same? Surely not!

No doubt Rabbi Elazar ben Arach invited them to come and study with him in a place where the water was good, since “water refers to Torah” (Bava Kamma 17a), as it is written: “Everyone who is thirsty, go to the water” (Isaiah 55:1). Rabbi Elazar did not want to abandon his Torah study. Rather, he simply wanted to study in tranquility. The other Sages feared this tranquility, which risked bringing about idleness, and they were correct. They went to study elsewhere and progressed in their learning, whereas Rabbi Elazar forgot everything he had learned. From this we learn that a person must not rely on his own understanding (Proverbs 3:5), nor count on his own strength, but on the contrary should study in adversity, which alone enables a person to retain what he has learned and achieve true peace. The two explanations that we have given complement one another, for they concern the peace and tranquility that Torah study provides.

It is possible that these Sages learned to be suspicious of the tranquility (“rest”) mentioned in our verse: “He saw rest, that it was good…. He bowed his shoulder to bear, and he became a servant of taskwork.” It is only in studying Torah through adversity that one retains what he has learned and achieves true rest, that of the next world, where G-d has reserved our just reward.


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