World of the Sages: The quest for tranquility

World of the Sages The

In the closing passages of our tractate, the sages offer a surprising and rather disheartening declaration: "Scholars of Torah have no rest (menuha), not in this world nor in the world to come" (B. Brachot 64a; B. Moed Katan 29b). What are our sages trying to tell us? A parallel passage elsewhere in the talmudic literature offers little insight when it suggests that the Torah scholars never rest because they spend their days shuttling from the synagogue to the study hall (Y. Shevi'it 35c). For many this is a gloomy prognosis; will we never merit a sense of achievement? After toiling over the pages of the first tractate of Talmud, after plowing through dense tomes, investing significant time and energy - perhaps with the hope of becoming a Torah scholar - we are greeted with this discouraging pronouncement: "Scholars of Torah have no rest, not in this world nor in the world to come." One hassidic master explained that Torah scholars have no rest because they need no rest. Those who dedicate their time to Torah study are so inspired by their encounter with tradition that they never tire (Rav Yeive, 18th century, Poland). Indeed when we embark on a journey that speaks to the root of our soul, we draw on hidden reserves of energy; we transcend our earthly existence, never tiring always invigorated. Alas for those of us mortals who do tire, and nevertheless make the effort to study Torah, it is demoralizing to think that despite years of study, we cannot look forward to any rest. Another hassidic master offered an explanation that reinterpreted the meaning of "rest." He understood "rest" to mean stagnation. Torah scholars do not rest because they are continually producing. Each day spent poring over the texts of our tradition reveals heretofore hidden pearls. Thus the statement that they will not rest is actually a blessing: Torah scholars will continually produce, continually innovate, they will not languish (Avnei Neizer, 19th century, Poland). This approach sends an inspiring message to the scholars of Torah, forecasting creativity and originality. Alas, the term menuha is not normally understood as stagnation. Finally we come to a contemporary hassidic master, Rabbi Shlomo Haim Friedman (1887-1972), who explained that the nature of this world is one of movement; nothing truly stagnates, life is always changing. Each person is sent to this world with a particular purpose. There are many things in this world that need repairing. Moving toward our lifelong objectives is our duty and privilege in this world. In this vein Rabbi Shlomenyu - as he was affectionately known - highlighted the words of Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1572, Poland) in his opening comment to the Shulhan Aruch: "I have set God before me constantly (Psalms 16:8) - this is a cardinal principle in Torah and in the pursuits of the righteous who go before the Lord." Rabbi Shlomenyu pointed out that the righteous are always on the move, they go before the Almighty, they do not merely stand at attention. Elsewhere in his work, he cited a different biblical verse: Fortunate are those who are at one with their path, who go in the Torah of God (Psalms 119:1) - to be at one with your path in life is to constantly go. From Rabbi Shlomenyu's talks we can suggest a distinction between shalva (tranquility) and menuha (rest). Indeed we strive not for rest; rest is idle festering that can be beset by decline and rot. We do aspire, however, to tranquility, that inner sense of peace and purpose; a pervasive feeling of making the unique contribution that is our lot; a life dedicated to the pursuit of goodness. Shalva can only be attained when there is no menuha. Menuha is good for Shabbat as a respite from the vicissitudes of the workweek; shalva is a goal for life. To quote the words of Rabbi Shlomenyu from a talk delivered in late 1968: "The shalva of the righteous is in truth the absence of menuha; and the menuha of the righteous entails a lack of shalva for there remains much that must be fixed... and how can one experience tranquility when he sees faults and does not attempt to fix them." For Rabbi Shlomenyu, lack of rest is a religious ideal. It is not an unfortunate by-product of productivity, it is not the result of a busy schedule; it is a value to which a person who seeks to grow intellectually and spiritually should aspire. The epitome of tranquility is not respite; it is movement and progress. It is on that very note that Brachot, the first tractate of Talmud, signs off: The goal is not to conclude; the ideal is to continue learning, to begin another tractate, to go from strength to strength, to seek tranquility in growth. The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.