The Paradox of Wealth

Rabbi Shimon the son of Yehuda would say in the name of Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai: Beauty, strength, wealth, honor, wisdom, seniority, old age and children are becoming to the righteous and becoming to the world. As is stated: etc. - Kinyan HaTorah 8 (often listed as Avos 6:8)

This beraisa contains an unspoken paradox, one that seems consistently and silently reiterated throughout various statements of Chazal. In this very perek of beraisos Chazal tell us that the "Torah way of life" is one of meagerness at best, one that could perhaps best be described as one of impoverishment. Chazal tell us that the Torah way of life entails self-deprivation; that one must be willing to make do with meager rations of dry bread and water and sleep in the humblest manner (i.e., on the floor).   Yet in this Beraisa R' Shimon Ben Yehuda is telling us that strength, glory, and wealth are good for Talmidei Chochomim. The simplest way to resolve this seeming contradiction is to say that Chazal feel that it is good for a Tolmid Chochom to be well off and comfortable, yet physical pleasure should not be his pursuit. Indeed our beraisa doesn't even say that someone who learns Torah should become rich. The Beraisa merely states that it is becoming of a tolmid Chochom to be affluent. While there merit to such an explanation, it seems peculiar that Chazal recommend a Torah scholar to run in the opposite direction from what is seemingly most befitting to him.

In the first chapter of Pirkei Avos in Mishna 11 Avtalyon teaches us that a Torah scholar must be scrupulous with regard to his teachings, lest he lead others into misunderstand their lessons. The Mishna explains that disciples’ misconstruing the Torah master's teachings will cause the disciples to die young, and that this would be a grave desecration of Hashem's Glory. Rashi on the mishna explains that Torah study should really grant its practitioner longevity. Yet, one who misunderstands its meaning, and therefore ends up not keeping the Mitzvos as they are supposed to be kept, will end up dying young. Although there was a reason for this untimely death, that reason remains unknown to the onlooker. Someone from the outside will see that a Torah scholar died before his time despite the fact that he was learning Torah. Hashem's Glory will thus be depreciated in the eyes of such an onlooker.

Chazal tell us that one who accepts the yoke of Heaven (to learn Torah and to do Mitzvos) will be spared the yoke of life's normal issues. This is indeed so. Yet at times, when hardships befall an individual, there may be causes for this that we do not see.   Dovid Hamelach tells us that the depth of Hashem's justice is as deep as the nether watery depths of the world (משפטיך תהום רבה). We cannot always understand why and what are Hashem's reasons for doing something seemingly contradictory to the way we think things ought to be.

People do not become rich by accident, but some people do inherit wealth or prosper in almost accidental ways. One can never become a Torah scholar without putting one's all into Talmud Torah. It is consequently incumbent upon anyone desiring to acquire Torah to put in all his efforts into Torah study. At times this total concentration of efforts may be at the expense of other basic needs. One's opulence can be left up to Hashem to take care of, but one's Torah knowledge must be attained through one’s own efforts.

While it is befitting for a Torah scholar to sit in the lap of luxury and to have an ideal life, it may not always work out this way. The absence of such a lifestyle may appear to some as an imperfection in Hashem's own glory. How could such a thing be, how could the Torah scholar who is doing what is expected from him be the object of Hashem's disgrace?

The answer is that the Torah scholar’s seeming sacrifice for Torah attests to his passion for it. It is this unyielding affinity for Hashem and His Word that can and will truly sanctify Hashem's Glory.