World of the Sages: The merit of facilitators

Though we extol those who devote their energies to plumbing our hallowed texts, combing page after page of our beloved books, we must not forget their peers who admirably facilitate this act.

In rabbinic thought, Torah study is the ultimate endeavor, plumbing the depths of our tradition in an attempt to access the will of the Almighty and reveal the path of our destiny. The Jewish bookcase beckons us to personally participate in this invigorating venture. Where this personal encounter is not possible, we are encouraged to provide opportunities for others to experience the texts of our heritage. Thus people who support the worthy enterprise of Torah study should undoubtedly be commended. What is the relative value of the contribution of these facilitators? Is their role merely secondary to the foremost objective of Torah study? Keeping in mind that in talmudic times women generally did not have opportunities to study and their task was limited to facilitating the study of men, the key to our question may lie in the Talmud's attitude to the female role with regard to learning Torah (B. Berachot 17a; see also B. Sotah 21a). Our sages highlight three aspects of women's relationship to Torah study that grant them eternal merit: First, women bring their young brood to the synagogue where the children would learn to read scripture. Second, they allow their husbands to journey to the beit midrash (study hall) where Talmud is analyzed. Third, they wait for their husbands to come home from the study hall. This third aspect is somewhat puzzling: Why should merit be culled for waiting for the return of those who frequent the beit midrash? Perhaps responding to this riddle, Rashi (11th century, France) expands the talmudic statement: "They wait for their husbands, and give them permission to go and study Torah in another city." While their husbands were away for extended periods, these faithful wives would patiently wait for the return of their spouses. Thus Rashi slightly alters this third aspect to bring it in line with the two previous actions. The thrust of the talmudic passage, therefore, is that merit is accrued through facilitating the learning of others - bringing children to school and allowing others to study even at the expense of lengthy absence. Our passage gives voice to the limited prospects for women in talmudic times to be involved in the coveted, acclaimed and central act of Torah study. As we know, our age has witnessed - and indeed continues to witness - titanic shifts in the opportunities for women to be ensconced in learning Torah. In many circles, the female role in Torah study is no longer limited to facilitating the male experience. Nevertheless, the talmudic passage can still be read with contemporary relevance by focusing on the lauded facilitatory role in Torah study. Indeed, our tradition has a paradigm for facilitating the study of others that is not cut along gender lines: The Yissachar-Zevulun partnership. Our sages tell us that two of Jacob's sons - Yissachar and Zevulun - had a fascinating arrangement (Tanhuma, Vayehi 11). Zevulun was a businessman in the shipping industry. His fleets were highly successful, plying the Mediterranean basin. Zevulun's brother, Yissachar, was an academic who spent his days immersed in Torah study. The two brothers had a deal: Zevulun supplied Yissachar with his material needs, while Yissachar's merit was bestowed upon his brother. In this way Zevulun facilitated Yissachar's learning, and merited a portion of the reward for the Torah endeavor. Normative Jewish law recognizes such an arrangement: One can contract a partnership, where one party supports another in exchange for the reward granted for Torah study (Shulhan Aruch and Remah, 16th century). Though we extol those who devote their energies to plumbing our hallowed texts, combing page after page of our beloved books, we must not forget their peers who admirably facilitate this act. Our sages, however, go further, noting a scriptural anomaly: In the Bible, Zevulun is mentioned before his older brother, Yissachar, both in the blessings Jacob grants his children on his deathbed (Genesis 49:13-15) and in the blessings Moses bestows before his demise (Deuteronomy 33:18). From this irregularity, our sages conclude that the facilitator is greater than the facilitated, for without the support of Zevulun, Yissachar would never have been able to study Torah: "If there is no material sustenance, there can be no Torah" (M. Avot 3:17). This is a position of serious import, but is it merely a charade? Do we really believe that the facilitators are the champions of our people, or are we in truth tactically trying to encourage their support for the real stars - those who study Torah? Returning to our talmudic passage about women: Before detailing how those who do not study Torah can gather merit, our sages declare: "Greater is the promise that the Holy One, blessed be He, made to women than to men." This claim is buttressed by a scriptural reference: "You women who are at ease, rise up and hear my voice; you confident daughters, heed my speech" (Isaiah 32:9) - indicating that women will be both "at ease" in this world and "confident" of attaining the World-to-Come (Rabbi Ya'acov Reisher, 17th-18th centuries, central Europe). Women in talmudic times did not have opportunities to study Torah. Traditionally, they are exempt from time-bound commandments. Hence their avenues towards merit appear to be limited. Our sages tell us they can still cull merit by facilitating others along their journey. Significantly, this merit appears to be of greater worth than the merit of those who are empowered to act. It can always be alleged that the talmudic passage is self-serving in that it urges support for its own cause - Torah study - and hence should not be cited as proof. Nevertheless, cogent arguments should be considered for the value of facilitating others. Empowering others to study should not be underestimated, for it is often a hapless role. Facilitators may be awarded a plaque or honored in some other way, but they are revered for abetting others to do what we value so dearly - learning Torah. In this way, their role can be perceived as secondary to the primary purpose and ultimate objective of studying Torah. From this perspective, facilitators are truly champions of our people. 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.