Toil and Labor

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



By Rav Elyakim Krumbein






            We have already seen that the Gaon of Vilna refused to learn Torah from heavenly maggidim who knocked at his door.  Following Rabbi Norman Lamm, we attributed this position to the fact that the Gra recoiled from laziness in a most fundamental manner; his way was one of personal toil and labor. Thus far we have see how this approach expressed itself in the Gra's Torah study, but the truth is that the Gaon saw in human exertion a more general principle and an all-embracing element in man's service of God.


            This understanding emerges from the Gra's advice on how a person should deal with his yetzer ha-ra, his evil inclination. How is man supposed to subdue his yetzer? Surely, the Sages describe it as possessing enormous powers (Sukka 52b):


Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said:[1] The evil inclination of a man grows in strength from day to day and seeks to kill him, as it is said: "The wicked watches the righteous and seeks to slay him" (Tehilim 38:32). And were it not that the Holy One, blessed be He, is his help, he would not be able to withstand it, as it is said: "The Lord will not leave him in his hand, nor suffer him to be condemned when he is judged" (ibid. v. 33).


            Our Sages are telling us here that a person is incapable of overcoming his evil inclination without God's help. Even though the Gra accepts their words, he does not understand from them that a person may give up in this struggle, and leave it for God to manage. On the contrary, it falls upon man to activate his human powers at the highest level, and only then may he hope for heavenly assistance:


Even though the Creator, blessed be He, gave man the power to conquer his evil inclination through the spirit that dwells within him, the work cannot be completed by man, and it is exceedingly difficult for him to reach its end. All he can do is begin the task and do whatever is in his capacity to do, and the work will be completed with the help of God… And God, blessed be He, searches man's heart and examines his inward parts, to understand when a person has done his part and whatever is in his power to do. And when He sees that everything that he was capable of doing he already did, and that he can do no more, and that his entire desire is for the good, then he will be joined by Divine help from heaven… because he has already reached the limit of his abilities, and he is not capable of doing more… If, however, he is still capable of doing more than he has already done, but he fails to do it, God will also not help him. (Kol Eliyahu, Sukka 52b)


            It is most instructive to compare the Vilna Gaon's opinion to the viewpoints of other Torah scholars who lived in the same period, but saw things differently. For example, the introduction to the book, Hishtapkhut Ha-nefesh, a collection of the teachings and advice of R. Nachman of Bretzlav on matters relating to prayer, cites a talmudic passage from Avoda Zara (4b):


Our Rabbis taught: In the verse, "O that they had such a heart always" (Devarim 5:26), Moshe said to the Israelites, You are an ungrateful people, the offspring of an ungrateful ancestor. When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, "Who might grant that they had such a heart always," you should have said: You grant!


            Doesn't this Baraita contradict the principle of free will? Didn't Chazal say: "Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven"? The author of this work cites a comment of the Maharsha in Sukka (ad loc.) which deals with this question:


Even though Chazal said: Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven, nevertheless, it is obvious that it is in the hands of the Holy One, blessed be He, to incline people's hearts for the good, as several Biblical verses indicate this.


            Based on this midrash, Rav Nachman demands of his students to occupy themselves in "seclusion":


From all this it is clear to the eye of truth how brilliant are the words of Chazal on seclusion, that is to say, to pour out his words before God, blessed be He, and beseech Him that should He provide us with the fear of heaven so that we not sin. Even though everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven, nevertheless everything is in His hands. And we must beseech Him, blessed be He, specifically about this, as is aptly explained in this Gemara, that Moshe complained about them and called them ungrateful, for not having said to God, blessed be He, "You grant," that He, blessed be He, should provide them with the fear of heaven, and as is explained there in the aforementioned Maharsha.


            Rav Nachman demands of us that we seek out God's involvement in order that we should improve. He is aware of the fact that this contradicts Chazal's dictum that the fear of heaven is not in the hands of heaven. But nevertheless he insists that "everything is in His hands" – even the fear of heaven! From here "seclusion," in the course of which a person asks to merit the fear of heaven, seizes a central role in the life of the believer in his service of his Creator. As stated, this idea is very far from the reality and outlook of R. Eliyahu of Vilna. Divine help is indeed a necessary condition for Torah study and service of God, but according to the Gra what demands man's attention is something entirely different: personal investment, toil and labor. God only provides assistance to one who "has already reached the limit of his abilities, and is not capable of doing more."




            Now, however, we must consider this very principle and understand what it means. On the face of it, it would suffice to identify it with great esteem for human action, as a moral principle in itself. Many verses support this: "And He put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it" (Bereishit 2:15); "But man is born to toil" (Iyov 5:7), and others. What this principle means is that it is man's role to create, not just in the material sense, but also in the world of the spirit and of holiness. The Gra's disciple, R. Chayyim Volozhiner, in his book, Nefesh Ha-chayyim, goes on at length to describe man as planting and building the heavenly world through his own actions. He makes use of Biblical images (Yeshaya 51:16): "And I have put My words in your mouth, and I have covered you in the shadow of My hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundation of the earth"; and of the words of Chazal (Berakhot 64a): "Read not 'your sons,' but rather, 'your builders.'"[2]


            If, however, we listen carefully to the words of the Gra himself, we will understand that he is driven by something deeper than the value of personal effort. I wish to cite once again from what he said when he rejected the angel who wanted to teach him Torah without receiving anything in return:


He told him: I do not want my comprehension of God's Torah to be by way of an intermediary whatsoever. My eyes are only raised to Him; that which He wishes to reveal to me, and give me a share in His Torah, through my toil with all my power, He will give me wisdom and understanding from His mouth, He will give me an understanding heart and He will turn my kidneys into two springs, and I will know that I have found favor in His eyes. I want nothing but from His mouth, and I have no desire for that which is attained through maggidim and officers of the Torah, for which I did not toil.


R. Eliyahu repeatedly emphasizes that he is not interested in learning Torah through "intermediaries" for precisely this reason, that is to say, because they are "intermediaries." He wishes to learn Torah directly from God Himself. This demands that he waive all kinds of assistants and go-betweens, and that he struggle personally and directly with the words of the Torah. He puts forward an important assertion: "I want nothing but from His mouth." When there is no need for maggidim or other intermediaries, the Gaon feels that he is learning, as it were, directly from God's mouth. This imagery is taken from the midrash:


Rabbi Yitzchak said: To what may this be likened? To a king who had a son, who came [home] from school. He found a plate before his father; his father took a piece [of food] and gave it to him. What did his son do? He said to him: I only want what is in your mouth. Since he loved him, he gave him from his mouth. This is: "For the Lord gives wisdom" (Mishlei 2:6); but he whom He loves: "out of His mouth comes knowledge and understanding" (ibid.). (Tanchuma [Buber], Parashat Ki-Tisa, 10)


            The Gra's experience of Torah study as direct communication with the Creator of the world, Giver of the Torah, is apparently connected to his theory regarding such study which we discussed at length in the past, and even bestows additional meaning upon it. In previous shiurim, we saw that according to the Gra, the role of the Torah student is to connect the extensive branching out of the Torah, with all its many details, to their source. Surely the final and ultimate source is the Giver of the Torah Himself! All of the effort to rise from one level to the next higher level that is closer to the source appears now as a continuous striving toward close and unmediated contact; and in simpler language, toward devekut, communion with God. As we enter more deeply toward "the ultimate source," we find ourselves in "the innermost sanctum," as put by R. Chayyim – and it is self-evident, for what purpose and for what type of encounter we enter into "the innermost sanctum."


            What stands out here, however, is what is liable to appear as a paradox in the Gaon's approach. All of this unmediated drawing close to God depends upon man's efforts, and upon intellectual achievements for which he must unceasingly labor. How can these two things be reconciled – the emphasis placed on human achievement and drawing near to the infinite Creator? On the face of it, a person who wishes to draw near to God must efface himself, to bow low, and not to aspire to greatness; for the presence of the Master of the Universe is all-embracing, and it cannot be experienced without being drawn into it. The mystical ideal of becoming one with the Absolute – according to the traditional understanding – requires self-effacement – "bittul ha-yesh" in Chassidic terminology. The Gra, however, advocates the very opposite. When a person puts his powers to rest, and turns himself into a passive utensil for receiving Torah from the angels, he distances himself from the Absolute. If he wants to create a real connection, he must cut himself off from anything that might influence him, and activate his own strengths, skills and abilities. According to the Gra, direct connection to God is not acquired at the cost of self-effacement, but on the contrary, through a strengthening of the true self. Drawing near to God involves creating bi-lateral relations, rather than destroying the self in the light of the Infinite. Using the words of Rav Kook, if there is no "I," there is also no "You."[3]


            Thus we return to R. Chayyim's complaint about the many people who thought that the Gra was not a kabbalist. Even though they were certainly mistaken, it is nevertheless correct to say that the Gaon was a kabbalist of a relatively unfamiliar type. He rejected the revelations of maggidim, and strove to experience connection, not by way of effacement, but by way of intensified study and the active involvement of his entire personality. The Gra's conduct and ideas may have been viewed as exceptional, to the point that people had difficulty seeing the Gra as one of the giants of kabbalistic lore.




            R. Chayyim reaches another conclusion which points to the unique position of the Gra in the realm of the esoteric law.


            Despite the fact that the Gra refused the pleadings of the "intermediaries," R. Chayyim attests that the Gra regularly experienced supernatural revelations:


And more than this he would say that even the wonderful and awesome things that the soul attains in sleep, in supernal pleasure in the heavenly academies, he did not regard as being so great, the main thing being what a person attains in this world through toil and labor when he chooses the good and opens himself to the words of the Torah. With this he pleases his Creator, blessed be His Name, this being all of man's duty to occupy himself in His Torah, blessed be His Name. But that which the soul attains in sleep, without labor and without choice and will, is merely reward, the Holy One, blessed be He, giving him a taste of the world-to-come in this world… What his holy words mean is that his soul ascended [to heaven] every night from the time that he reached discretion. And this was also told to me by one of his disciples who heard it explicitly from his mouth… He would regularly say that the entire matter of sleep was created by God exclusively for this purpose, that everything that is not in a person's ability to attain while his soul is connected to his body, even after all the labor and toil on the part of the body, which is a separating barrier, is revealed to it in sleep, when it is free from the body and dressed in its heavenly garment.


            This testimony, which was received from a first-hand witness, speaks of the Gra's spiritual life-style and of the frequent ascents of his soul. R. Chayyim offers fascinating details and examples that we have not recorded here, and the reader is invited to see them at the source. In any event, the Gra does not negate the value of actual contact with the supernal worlds; on the contrary, he justifies it as reward for his toil and labor. But together with his esteem, we also hear his reservations. The phenomena of "the ascent of the soul," the ultimate aspiration of the ordinary kabbalist, which even R. Chayyim notes with veneration as a great virtue of his teacher, is assigned inferior status by the Gra himself. All of the revelations are nothing but reward. The important thing is to do what is pleasing to the Creator during one's hours of wakefulness; especially toil in Torah based on will and choice.


            It seems that this position of the Gra turns his characterization as a kabbalist into a complex matter. For it expresses his practical preference to occupy himself in the rational study of Torah, by way of his natural human powers, over the study of Torah in a state of ecstatic elation, which is the primary goal of the "ordinary" kabbalist.


            This idea becomes further sharpened in light of another point through which R. Chayyim Volozhiner contrasts the ways of his teacher to what usually happens to kabbalists. R. Chayyim deals with the question how it was that the Gra merited all this spiritual life, and how he became a household member of "the heavenly academies." It should be emphasized that this question is critical. R. Chayyim is not interested in glorifying the Gra's name as an end in itself, but as a figure that can offer us guidance and direction. What can we learn for ourselves from the path followed by the Gaon of Vilna?


And above all, this was entirely natural for him, so that he didn't need for this any mystic intentions or unifications whatsoever. And the truth is that this stands to reason, since all the words issuing from his mouth and the meditations and thoughts of his heart, shall never hold their peace day or night. But he is exclusively occupied in the exoteric Torah, in the secrets of Creation, and in the secrets of the Chariot. As is well-know, he never walked four cubits without Torah and tefilin, everything in amazing holiness and purity. Surely a person is only shown the contemplations of his heart, and why would he need intentions and unifications….


            The Gra merited all these supernatural revelations through absolutely natural and rational acts. The "reward" that the Gra merited during his lifetime was a clear and simple result of his immersion in the Torah, in holiness and purity. A person's preoccupations lead to a corresponding response from heaven, and therefore "a person is only shown the contemplations of his heart." R. Chayyim continues to develop this idea:


In truth, all of his wonderful actions and awesome revelations are not hidden from my eyes. For my soul knows and my eyes saw that all of the forty-eight things through which our holy Torah is acquired were all found in our great and holy teacher. His preoccupation with Torah for its own sake with all his power, with the greatest possible holiness and purity, leaving nothing, small or large… And with all his might he worked and kept it, actually giving his life for every little detail in the Torah. He never looked beyond his four cubits, and the enormity of his withdrawal from all worldly affairs was amazing… He lived, firmly holding onto the tree of life, hardly ever tasting sleep from the day he reached discretion, to the point that the Torah was given to him as a gift, and his two kidneys turned into two flowing springs, a source of wisdom… Anyone who has not seen the holiness of his Torah and service and the purity of his abstinence and his piety and his humility, has never seen illumination in his life…. And for this reason, all of his wondrous actions and great revelations are no surprise to me, for he received his reward; this is the Torah and this is its reward, from heaven he received his portion for all his toil. Surely we have a tradition from the Tanna Rabbi Meir that he merited many things… And the entire order of holiness that was listed by the Tanna Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair[4] was found in our great teacher, and they brought him to the holy spirit…. For when he came with the power of his Torah, he was the cherished child before Him, a member of the royal palace who beholds the inner light in the innermost sanctum, heavenly and holy secrets, as our Rabbis have said (Avoda Zara 35). What is more, things hidden from the rest of the people were revealed to him, and all the heavenly gates were open to him, and there was nobody to object… He cleaves to Him, blessed be His name, for the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Torah are one.



            We see that the explanation given for the Gra's spiritual attainments is entirely moral. He who immerses himself in the service of God through Torah study for its own sake, indefatigably and with full strength, will receive his reward, and that reward is most magnificent. This idea is explicit in the words of Chazal, and should come as no surprise.


            All this was clear and simple to R. Chayyim, but were it also so in the eyes of his readers, he would not have had to speak of it at such length. The target audience of Sifra de-Tzeni'uta are students of kabbala, and to them it was reasonable that in order to merit heavenly revelations it was necessary to employ all the processes and techniques mentioned by R. Chayyim, "intentions and unifications." This deeply rooted assumption is reflected in the well-known piyyut relating to the ten martyrs:


They set their eyes upon Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest,

And asked him to pronounce God's Name and ascend…

Rabbi Yishmael purified himself and reverently pronounced the Name, and he ascended…


            The piyyut reflects the elitism of the kabbalistic world. None of the great authorities of Israel were capable of reaching those precincts regularly frequented by the High Priest, with his charismatic personality, he alone in possession of the esoteric knowledge and mystical capability, which are the keys to the heavenly academies and their revelations. When the Gra demonstrates in his life that there is no need for intentions and unifications, he is eroding this elitism. This principle is written in the Baraitot of Chazal in a language that everyone can understand: "He who occupies himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things." Everything depends upon diligence, devotion, love, fear and purity of heart. On the one hand, the Gra and his disciples rely on explicit sources, but on the other hand, they challenge the conventional opinions held by those who study both the esoteric and the exoteric law. Indeed, another layer of complexity envelops the kabbalistic side of the Gra.


            These ideas had enormous influence upon the thought of R. Chayyim Volozhiner, which was spelled out at length in his work, Nefesh Ha-chayyim; a book which greatly impacted upon the Lithuanian yeshiva world, and as a result, upon our world as well.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Other sources cite this statement in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Levi.

[2] See Nefesh Ha-chayyim, sha'ar 1, chapter 3. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik dealt at length with this principle, especially in his Halakhic Man.

[3] Compare with the words of Rav Kook, "Bakashat Ha-ani Ha-atzmi," Orot Ha-kodesh, vol. 3, p. 140.

[4] "From here Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said: Torah leads to vigilance, vigilance leads to alacrity… piety leads to the holy spirit" (Avoda Zara 20b). There are many different readings of this Baraita; see, for example, the reading brought in the Mishna at the end of tractate Sota, and in the Ramchal's Mesilat Yesharim.