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THE YOKE'S ON YOU

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

There was an abrupt knock. The simple villager opened the door to find a messenger delivering a letter from the king. Thanking the messenger, the man closed the door and excitedly tore open the envelope, elated over the mere thought that the king had sent him a letter.

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There was an abrupt knock. The simple villager opened the door to find a messenger delivering a letter from the king. Thanking the messenger, the man closed the door and excitedly tore open the envelope, elated over the mere thought that the king had sent him a letter. He pulled the note from the envelope and carefully read each word. The king requested that a certain task be fulfilled, but the wording was complex and it was unclear exactly what was expected. The man, very disturbed that he could not understand the king's request, ran all over town until he found someone who was able to explain the letter's contents.

As Jacob lay on his deathbed in this week's Torah portion, he called to his sons and blessed each one based on their unique, individual qualities. When blessing Yissochar, Jacob compared him to a "strong-boned donkey" who had "seen tranquillity as good. . .and bent his shoulder to bear [the yoke]. . ." (Genesis 49:14-15).

Rabbeinu Bachya, a classic 14th century commentator, explains the significance of this analogy: A strong donkey, with many bones and little flesh, is a powerful being, able to tolerate and bear heavy loads. This metaphor epitomized Yissochar's dedication to the study of Torah. Yissochar acted strongly, unflinchingly bearing the yoke of Torah and serving as a spiritual reservoir for the entire Jewish nation. Hence, he was compared to a donkey.

What was the tranquillity that he saw to be so good? Rabbeinu Bachya explains that this is the tranquillity of Torah. Yissochar realized that in order to fully grasp the ideas of the Torah, a person needs to exert himself in spirit, deeply contemplating and manipulating intangible concepts, while at the same time feeling physically relaxed and spared of distraction. This tranquillity - the physical and emotional tranquillity necessary to fully absorb the Torah, Hashem's vast and detailed system of wisdom and truth - is what Yissochar saw as good. When someone is bothered, upset, and bogged down by worldly difficulties, it becomes impossible for him to grasp the Torah's full meaning.

The Chofetz Chaim, the great sage and leader of Jewry at the beginning of this century, interprets this tranquillity in a different way. He explains that it refers to the tranquillity of the World to Come. Yissochar saw that the tranquillity of the World to Come is so great, that it is worthwhile to bear the yoke of Torah in this world, so as to merit that tranquillity later. If we keep in mind our sense of purpose, that our goal here is to achieve the greatest possible position in the next world, then the slight inconveniences of living a Torah lifestyle are negligible.

To be overcome by those inconveniences would be akin to a pro-basketball star giving up because people keep trying to grab the ball away from him. In fact, the athlete will not let this bother him because he has a specific goal in mind - namely, the basket - and the defensive maneuvers of the opposing team just come with the territory. Tolerating the inconveniences is worthwhile because he understands his purpose on the court. Likewise, if we understand our purpose in this world, then the difficulties that arise throughout life become negligible when considered in light of the tranquillity we will receive in the future.

By blending these two interpretations, we can learn an incredible lesson. Ideally, in order to properly and fully obtain the concepts of the Torah, we need peace of mind and freedom from all bothers and troubles of the outside world. Unfortunately, in this day of drastic technological advances, fast-moving and competitive business maneuvers, and an undying race for life, liberty, and happiness, it becomes increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to maintain that level of tranquillity. Nevertheless, although it is difficult and we are lacking ideal conditions, this does not remove our obligation to the Torah. For if we understood the importance of learning Torah and the indescribable benefits it will provide us in the long run, then all of the inconveniences and hardships would fall aside, meaningless in our pursuit of eternity.

However, while we are pushing through the difficulties and studying the Torah as we should, we must pray for the tranquillity that we need to fully receive the messages of the Torah. This, explains Rabbeinu Bachya, we do three times a day in the blessing of Hashiva shofteinu in which we beseech Hashem to restore the judicial system of old. This is not merely because we want to settle legal disputes, but rather because we want these judges to lead us closer to Hashem. In the same blessing we ask for the removal of all sorrow and worry, for when we have those judges, we will be able to follow them to a complete recognition of Hashem only if we exert ourselves through joy and tranquillity, not worry and sorrow.

Just as the villager ran to find the meaning of the king's letter, so should be our attitude to understanding Hashem's Torah. Our greatest yearning should be to fully understand its deeper meanings. This goal can only be realized in a calm, tranquil atmosphere, where we can exert all of our efforts, undistracted, into our Torah study. Unfortunately, the constant strains and pressures of the outside world impede us from attaining this complete understanding. Nonetheless, it behooves us to persevere through these distractions and to continue learning amongst the hustle and bustle, in order to secure our positions in the World to Come. We must carefully manage our schedules in order to set regular, uncompromising times for learning Torah. Especially nowadays, with the plethora of night classes, Torah tapes, and Internet Torah sites, there is no excuse for anyone not to be learning on a daily basis. Also, we must make use of our free time on Shabbat to go to a class or study a Torah book, rather than sleeping through or wasting the holy day. While we are doing this, we must also pray that the distracting hassles be removed from our lives. May Hashem soon restore the judges and counselors of old, and remove sorrow and worry from our midst, in order that we may fully apply ourselves to understanding His Torah.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Wisconsin Institute of Torah study in Milwaukee.

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