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Effort That Really Counts

Effort That Really Counts

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As we conclude the third book of the Torah in synagogues around the world this week, I am reminded of the traditional prayer recited upon completion of a tractate of the Talmud. In it, we thank G‑d for the great opportunity to toil in the study of Torah. The prayer contains a line that goes like this: “We toil and they toil. We toil and receive reward, while they toil and don’t receive reward.”1 The prayer is obviously contrasting Torah study with all other activities and forms of work: while Torah study offers meaningful compensation, other endeavors don’t.

But this needs further explanation. Is this really so? Is there really no meaningful compensation in other fields of work? Last I heard, people were being compensated in other areas as well! So, how does Torah study differ?

Torah study is mostly about the means, not so much about the endsThe explanation lies in careful examination of the words of the prayer: “. . .they toil and receive no reward.” Why did the author of this prayer of thanksgiving choose the word “toil” as opposed to, let’s say, “work” or “achieve”?

The answer, I believe, is that Torah study is all about the effort and the “toiling,” in contrast with other endeavors or sciences, where the main focus is on accomplishment and the final product.

Torah study is mostly about the means, not so much about the ends. In other areas of life, who cares about your toiling? Toiling is just a means to an end. There is no reward for hard work and shvitzing. In fact, if you could accomplish the same job without toiling, that would be just as good. No extra reward is given for the toiling. It is mostly the results that count! In Torah study, however, it’s the opposite. Even if you were to toil in Torah study without any tangible results, that itself is worthy of reward!

The reason for this is because unlike other sciences, Torah study is not about accumulating knowledge. Unlike other self-help books and religious manuals, the Torah is not only about learning how to observe. Torah study is primarily about forging a relationship with G‑d. When we toil in the study of Torah, and connect to the fountain of G‑d’s wisdom, we are at that moment experiencing oneness and forging a relationship with our G‑d—regardless of whether we succeeded in totally mastering the subject we are studying. The relationship with G‑d is experienced mostly while toiling and studying, not in the results or accomplishments.

This thought is echoed in this week’s Torah portion, which tells us: “If you will walk in my statutes” (Leviticus 26:3), explained by Rashi to be a reference to “toiling in Torah.” Again, the emphasis here is on the effort and not so much on the results.

What a refreshing approach and dramatic contrast to all those other areas, where the only thing that matters are your results! From a Torah perspective, we don’t care so much about what your grades are, or even how many titles and degrees you master in life. What is most cherished and valued by G‑d is the hard work and effort that you put into your Torah studies! The quality and effort while on the journey of Torah study is way more important than the destination.

Footnotes
1.

This line is originally found in the Talmud (Berachot 28b), as part of the prayer that Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah would say upon exiting the study hall.

Rabbi Avraham E. Plotkin is the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Markham, Ontario.
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Anonymous June 1, 2016

To Marty You are correct. Helping someone is just as importent as studying Torah. There are 2 types of mitzvot: mitzvahs between us and another person and mitzvots between us and G-d. Reply

Marty Denver May 18, 2012

Mitzvoth I don't understand the emphasis on studying Torah. I wish the focus was on good deeds rather than study. If I understood one of Rabbi Freeman's articles correctly, the reward is in the feeling you have when helping others. We don't even need to study Torah for that as we, like most social species, are hard wired to contribute to others. I support learning Torah but I don't feel connected to G-d when doing so. Helping others or animals is rejuvenating. Reply

Lisa Aubert Long Beach, CA May 18, 2012

Torah study I too come from a christian background and have begun studying Torah. What I get from Torah is indeed a closer connection with G-d more than I ever had. I am less burden down with trying to get results through christianity. This is not meant to be an insult to christianity but sharing my own personal experience. Torah has enhanced, enlightened and enlarged my spiritual growth in ways I can't fully express and I am so grateful for the access to it in this age. Reply

Anonymous ATL May 17, 2012

To Patricia It is not that the journey is more important than the destination. Rather the journey is the destination when studying Torah since any effort/ toil (journey) brings one closer to G-d (the destination). They are simultaneous events. And yes, no material worth, no title, no worldly reward is comparable to even the most limited Torah toil-- because the latter improves one's essence, character, which again brings one closer to G-d. What could compare? Reply

Anonymous Roanoke, VA May 17, 2012

The means IS the end (and the beginning) I think Ms. Waller is missing the point. IMHO, it is not about "what you get," it is about how you evolve in the never-ending process. There is a continuous duty to keep Torah, and to transmit it to the next generation. Yet no one person can ever fully know it. However, by studying Torah, our thoughts, our emotions, our dreams, our desires, all begin to shift slowly. That in turn helps each individual to BE a piece of the communal preservation of Torah. (At least that's how I see it.) Reply

chana London, Please select May 17, 2012

BEAUTIFUL!!!!!! Thank you so much for such a beautiful article. I hope that teachers and heads of our schools/yeshivas and sems read this and take note. Reply

Michelle May 17, 2012

THANKYOU so much! Recently I have been asked to consider leaving the house and doing something intellectual... a course... where I can be with other people and learn something! but i couldn't explain how i feel that at this time in my life that is not necessary. I am at home in our Family home and I study already, I study Torah daily... and still my Friend and one before her tried to tell me that to go into a class and be with other People was what i needed... but all I want... is to find and stay, with G-d. This piece of text today reaffirmed to me that this is still the case... and someone somewhere... can also understand. for what i am... primarily is to be here and be of service... for what i am is a Mother a Teacher from within. G-d bless you and thank you so much. Reply

Patricia Waller Isleton, CA May 15, 2012

Torah study Whyis the journey of Torah Study more important than the destination? I am a christian studying Judism and was wondering about this. Does this mean what you get from the studying of the torah and what you learn is more important than what you have aquired in your life such as how much monie and fame that you have gotten by greed. I feel greed which is one of the seven sins is something I don't understand I live in a samll home by the Sacramento river my husband like to fish, I spend my time studying Judisam, I have no use for alot of money but to share with others, I fill sharing is more important than having it all. Reply

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