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The behavior of our contemporaries is a common yardstick we use to assess our conduct. Without such an index, we measure our own progress or contribution in a vacuum. The Talmud describes how the sages of Yavneh would gauge their own deeds in an oft-repeated lesson (B. Berachot 17a):
"I am a creature and my peer is a creature: My work is in the city and his work is in the field; I arise early for my work and my peer arises early for his work. Just as he does not aspire to distinguish himself by doing my work, thus I do not aspire to distinguish myself by doing his work. And lest you say: 'I do much and he does little' - [this is not accurate] for we have taught: 'Both the one who does much and the one who does little [are equal], as long as each person directs his heart towards Heaven."
It's a captivating motto declaring different - but equally valid - spiritual roles in our society. There is, however, some uncertainty regarding the character of the speaker in this adage, and even more haziness regarding the identity of the speaker's peer. The commentators offer a number of suggestions.
Since the lesson was taught by the sages of Yavneh, Rashi (11th century, France) suggests that the passage refers to Torah scholars who are comparing their existence with the lives of their uneducated peers. The contribution of the scholar, dedicated to poring over the texts of our Tradition, seems to be far more significant than those of the unlearned farmer who spends his days toiling in the fields. The sages reject this appraisal, reminding themselves that our roles should be gauged according to the heartfelt quality of our service to God.
Though Rashi's approach focuses on occupational locations - the city versus the field - it is strange to find the sages calling the unlearned "haveri" (my peer). As one commentator points out, this term is usually reserved for the learned (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). To whom might this passage be referring? Perhaps the peer is also one involved in daily Torah study, albeit to a lesser extent than the Yavneh sages. Though the peer's inherent capabilities don't reach those of the sages, his contribution is duly recognized, for Torah study is judged according to investment, not achievement.
This approach, however, lacks strong textual support. Does the one who learns minimally find himself only in the field? Moreover, where in the passage is there a hint that the peer has studied at all? Perhaps most significantly, this approach validates only two similar models: those who learn excessively and those who learn minimally. Is there no room for acknowledging those whose service to God does not bring them into the study halls?
A third suggestion compares those who study with those who provide financial support for scholars (Rabbi Yoshiya Pinto, 16th-17th centuries, Damascus). The Almighty created us for different roles - some of us were created to study, others to support those who study. We both rise early: the scholar rises to learn Torah, while the merchant rises to provide the scholar with sustenance. The scholar could not succeed in the business world; the merchant would not thrive in the beit midrash (study hall). The necessary symbiosis between the two makes their contributions of equal value in a final reckoning.
A more narrow reading understands the speaker to be the Talmudist whose peer, the Mishnaist, has not reached great depths of scholarship (Rabbi Naftali Katz, 17th-18th centuries, Poland). The Talmudist performs his public duty by ruling on matters of law, never shying from his communal responsibility. The Mishnaist studies with no airs of being a halachic decisor, plugging away at the basic texts of our canon. The two scholars are vast distances apart, yet they are assessed not by how much material they studied, but by how sincerely they studied it.
Though this reading seems to be hierarchical, its proponent insists that the sages were not trying to score points over counterparts who played a lesser role in the formation of normative practice. This may be a difficult claim to embrace, for the passage clearly seems to acknowledge the contribution of the Talmudist, while praising the Mishnaist for not being pretentious.
Thus we see that many commentators reduced the impact of this passage, defining the study of Torah as the only legitimate course. Going outside the confines of the beit midrash is validated only when there is still some minimal interaction with Torah, or when leaving is aimed at supporting Torah study. As we have seen, only Rashi validated the deeds of the unlearned, a route that involved no Torah study.
Using Kabbalistic language, the late-19th century Baghdadi scholar Rabbi Yosef Haim returned to the explanation offered centuries earlier by Rashi, albeit in a contemporary voice. The speaker in this passage is indeed a Torah sage, and his counterpart is none other than the unlearned merchant. The scholar remains in the study halls within the city, while those involved in business must travel beyond the town limits.
The Baghdadi commentator, however, tweaks the declaration that neither party encroach on the other's turf. The merchant doesn't claim he would study at the beit midrash benches if he weren't burdened with earning a living. The scholar, in turn, acknowledges that if he were involved in the business world, perhaps he would not be able to maintain a high standard of honesty in his dealings. The sage might be tempted to claim that, in a final assessment, his contribution is greater for he has busied himself with Torah. Such an accounting is foolish, for faithful business transactions equally contribute to the repairing of our fragmented world.
Thus we see that the heart's heavenly intent is the most important consideration when gauging the worth of our actions. As our sages have simply stated (B. Sanhedrin 106b, and widely quoted): "The Holy One, blessed be He, desires the heart."
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.