World of the Sages: 'Nahas' for God

Job is one of the texts that can be read at times when Torah study is generally prohibited.

At the end of studying the book of Job, Rabbi Yohanan would say: "A person's end is to die and an animal's end is for slaughter and all are poised for death," and then temper his somber words by adding, "Fortunate is the one who grew in Torah and whose toil is in Torah and who gives nahat ruah (pleasure, "nahas" in Yiddish) to his creator and who grew up with a good name and who departed from the world with a good name, and of such a person Solomon said (Ecclesiastes 7:1): 'A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death [is better] than the day of his birth'" (B. Brachot 17a). The sobering tale of Job is part of the Bible, yet it has no set time during the year when it is read. Indeed, Job is one of the texts that can be read at times when Torah study is generally prohibited, namely when a person is mourning or on the fast of Tisha Be'av, the day of Jewish national mourning (B. Ta'anit 30a). But even then, Job is not read publicly. Why then was Rabbi Yohanan making a habit of reading this biblical book to the extent that he was known for what he would say at the conclusion of the book? Responding to this question, one commentator recalled that Rabbi Yohanan suffered great misfortune during his life, burying many children and carrying the scar of the tragedy wherever he went (B. Brachot 5b). Thus he had the unfortunate opportunity to regularly read Job (Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, 19th-20th centuries, Russia). Commentators ask: What was it about the book of Job that prompted Rabbi Yohanan's somber words? One commentator focused on the end of the book where Job dies with a good reputation. This ending prompted Rabbi Yohanan to meditate on the importance of a good name (Rashi, 11th century, France). Another commentator noted that the majority of the book deals with death and human suffering. Rabbi Yohanan was therefore moved to comment on these themes (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). A close reading of Rabbi Yohanan's words reveals something surprising in one of his comments: "Fortunate is the one who grew in Torah and whose toil is in Torah and who gives nahat to his creator." From his words it would appear that investment in Torah is distinct from giving pleasure to the Almighty. Doesn't God get nahat from those who grow in Torah and who toil in Torah? The commentators noticed this issue, and offered a variety of approaches. One referenced the talmudic adage, "Whoever is greater than his fellow, his evil inclination is greater than his fellow's" (B. Succa 52a). Thus those dedicated to the pursuit of Torah bear the burden of a powerful evil inclination. Despite the unrelenting temptation they must deal with, the Almighty still has nahat from their efforts (Rabbi Ya'acov Reisher, 17th-18th centuries, Central Europe). Another commentator highlighted the motive of Torah study to explain Rabbi Yohanan's words: A person may learn the hallowed texts of our tradition for purposes other than the divine lofty goal of connecting to the Almighty. Alas, there are those who study Torah as a means to an end: to achieve recognition or high station. Such Torah study does not provide the Almighty with nahat; the only one who derives pleasure from such study is the learner and his evil inclination. Thus, Torah study does not perforce entail nahat for God and hence Rabbi Yohanan noted it as a distinct goal (Rabbi Yoshiya Pinto, 16th-17th centuries, Damascus). A variation on this theme appears in the writings of another commentator: A person may study Torah solely for his own enjoyment; the challenge of deciphering a difficult text, of unraveling perplexing sources, of mentally engaging in an existential issue. While such a venture is considered Torah study, it hardly gives nahat to the Almighty (Rabbi Hanoch Zundel, 19th century, Bialystok). The hassidic master Rabbi Mordechai Leifer of Nadvorna (d. 1895, Galicia, today Nadvirna in Ukraine) expounded on Torah study that does not give God nahat. He began by quoting the mishnaic dictum that distinguishes between the students of Abraham who merit this world and the world to come and the students of the prophet Balaam who are destined for Gehenna (M. Avot 5:19). Rabbi Mordechai of Nadvorna noted that apparently Balaam was also a teacher and he too had students. Alas, not all teachers are cut of one cloth. Rabbi Mordechai of Nadvorna explained: Imagine a teacher sitting with students and in the middle of the class someone rushes in and breathlessly relates that a certain person has been incarcerated and is in dire need of immediate assistance. "Redeeming captives!" shouts the news-bearer and turns to the teacher, "Can you go and argue his case before the authorities?" If the teacher responds: "I am busy teaching Torah now, and as we all know Torah study is comparable to all other mitzvot. I am sorry I am unavailable at this time." This - explained Rabbi Mordechai of Nadvorna - is the classroom of Balaam and from this Torah study God has no nahat. Yet if the teacher gallantly turns to the students, "Pass me my coat. Let's go and beseech the authorities on behalf of our imprisoned brother" - this is the classroom of Abraham our forefather. Such Torah study, though it has been interrupted, gives the Almighty great pleasure. The approaches cited point in a common direction: While learning Torah is a grand endeavor, it must still be done in the appropriate manner otherwise we can hardly expect it will please the Almighty. Thus Torah studied for personal gain or for pleasure alone is sullied by the impure motive; Torah studied without regard for the surroundings, for our fellow people, is also lacking. Torah may be among the most lofty enterprises of our tradition, yet even noble pursuits should be approached in the appropriate manner so that their potential is fully realized and God will shep nahas from us. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.