Shiur #8: Perek 1, mishnayot 14-15

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




If I will not be for myself, then who will be for me?  And even when I am for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?


While commentators generally see Hillel's questions in terms of Torah and mitzvot, Maharal adds a new twist to each.




For the question of "If I am not for myself," Maharal points out that Torah is one of the areas of life that cannot be passed from one person to the next.  While a parent who makes a fortune can transfer that money on to a child, and rain that falls in the merit of one person benefits many others as well, the spiritual elevation provided by mitzvot and Torah study can result only from personal involvement.  In Maharal's view, when Hillel says, "If I am not for myself," he is stating a fact of Torah study, that it cannot be acquired by somebody else yet create a spiritual impact upon myself. 


I wonder what Maharal would have done with the notion that financially supporting someone else's learning could redound to the backer's credit - such as Yissachar and Zevulun.  In this relationship, members of the tribe of Yissachar all would learn Torah, and Zevulunites all would engage in commerce - with the understanding that the tribe of Zevulun would support the Yissacharites financially in return for the sechar (reward) of their Torah study.


Presumably, Maharal would say that Zevulun got reward for supporting a Torah scholar rather than the benefit of Torah study itself, since it is only actual study that can produce those results, but the midrashim on the issue seem to suggest that the two brothers shared the benefits of Yissachar's Torah study equally.




In the second clause, "And when I am for myself, what am I?" Maharal refers to the impossibility of filling the soul with mitzvot.  The point is that even if we have made attempts to study Torah and fulfill the commandments, we should not think that we have completed our task.  Rather, the soul is always capable of being filled further.


Maharal gives an analogy that we will get to in a moment, but I wanted to note the underlying assumption of both clauses.  In the first, Maharal spoke of our inability to achieve the elevation of our soul provided by Torah and mitzvot except by doing them ourselves.  Here, he notes that the soul can never be "filled" with Torah and mitzvot.  He clearly assumes, in other words, that the main focus of these actions is their impact on the soul, not the external reward we get for them.


If it were true that the reward God gives for Torah study is external to a person and also is the essential outcome of the act, then there would be no reason to claim that "I can learn only for myself" - I should be able to learn and direct God to give that reward to whomever I designate.  Maharal's notion that that is impossible assumes that it is the internal, personal result of these actions that counts most centrally.


Maharal then gives the midrash's analogy to a villager who marries a princess.  Try as he might, the villager can never provide her with the comforts she was used to from home.  So, too, the soul is a piece of the Divine bestowed upon our physical world, and our bodies are poor hosts for it - no matter how hard we try to satisfy our souls.  Hillel therefore reminds us that even if we toil carefully in the fields of spirituality, we cannot fulfill (or fill) our soul's yearnings.


In saying this, Maharal has brought in a theme we have seen before, but which the text does not allude to:  the contrast between the physical and the spiritual.  Hillel's statement denies the possibility of achieving enough to engender a sense of pride - even when I do work for myself, what does that make me?  Nevertheless, he does not indicate that the problem lies in our physical side's being unable to fulfill our spiritual side.  That interpretation comes from Maharal's view of the world, a view we already have seen.




Our physical limitations also explain the question of "If not now, when?" for Maharal.  While the question could be taken as the ordinary preference for doing mitzvot as soon as possible, since delay can lead to further delays, Maharal adds that it is a reference to the brevity of our lives as physical beings.  Since we live only a short time, we need to grasp each possible moment for Torah and mitzvot.  As before, the mishna referred to the urgency of time in our observance of Torah, but it was Maharal who brought in the question of our ephemeral physicality.


Maharal closes his discussion of the mishna by pointing out that Hillel was known for his humility, and that the thrust of this mishna echoes that trait, since it stresses our inadequacies at reaching our spiritual potential.




Shammai says: Make your Torah a fixed part of your life; say little and do much, and greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.




In Maharal's structure of the zugot, Shammai should reflect yir'a (awe of God) and Hillel, ahava (love of God).  Here, that dichotomy does not seem so clear, since it is not apparent how having Torah a fixed part of our lives is a protection against anything.  Maharal therefore claims that Shammai is in fact trying to protect us against losing the regular presence of Torah study in our lives, not keeping our word or our promises, and giving the impression that we denigrate others.  Each of his dicta thus protects against a specific danger.


Aside from showing how Shammai fits into the general pattern of the zugot, Maharal also shows how Shammai specifically complements Hillel.  Hillel is known for his openness to others and his willingness to work with those unprepared for the challenges associated with achieving the truths of Torah.  In contrast, Shammai is known as a kapdan, or a stickler for standards.  In the famous Talmudic stories of people who demanded that Shammai convert them to Judaism on various conditions (one while standing on one foot, another on the condition that he only be responsible for the Written Torah, a third that he could be Kohen Gadol), Shammai simply refused.  Hillel, however, found a way to work with each of them, so that eventually he brought them to full observance.




Shammai's statements here, Maharal suggests, point to areas where a kapdan is necessary - where it is important to demand standards.  Unless we are exacting in our insuring that we have Torah study as a fixed part of our life, unless we take great care with our words so as not to misspeak, and unless we take great care with how we greet others, we will end up behaving inappropriately.  Maharal does not, however, explain how these three areas in particular need more hakpada (strictness) than others.


In fact, Maharal suggests that Hillel and Shammai were talking about avenues of ahava and yir'a for the entire Jewish community.  While Shemaya and Avtalyon explained how people of power could use that power properly and avoid the negative consequences inherent in such positions of power, Hillel and Shammai expanded their thoughts and expressed them in ways relevant to the general populace.




At this point, the mishna moves away from zugot to just individual rabbis - beginning with the leaders, but then quoting more randomly within each generation.  Maharal pauses here, therefore, to note the history of the tradition until this point.  There were five stages of leadership where the tradition encompassed all aspects of relating to God:  Moshe, Joshua, the Elders, the Prophets, and the Members of the Great Assembly.  In parallel, there were five zugot where the whole tradition was shared between the two of them (with one focusing on yir'aand one on ahava, as we have seen).  Maharal then shows how the number five is important in terms of the revelation of Torah, in that he believes there were five kolot (Voices) which transmitted the Torah.


Without describing his attachment to the number five in detail (we will see more of it in later mishnayot), it is worth noticing that Maharal has made a structural statement about the course of the history on the passage of tradition.  At each stage of the decline in preserving tradition, five generations was the limit of reliability and completeness.  In the first five groups, each member possessed the entirety of tradition, and in the next five, the tradition was complete but shared between two leaders.


Incidentally, Antigonos of Socho does not fit Maharal's picture, since he was an individual in possession of the whole tradition.  Maharal suggests that he was a transitional figure, helping Shimon Ha-tzaddik pass on the tradition.



More interesting than Maharal's specific explanations are his assumption that this history would follow a set pattern based on the power of the number five.  The process, for Maharal, is that the strength of each form of tradition dissipated after five generations; tradition then continued in a slightly weaker form for another five generations, after which it diffused completely.  Who it spread to and what they thought are questions we will answer next week.