תניא ר’ שמעון בן יוחאי אומר שלוש מתנות טובות נתן הקב”ה לישראל, וכלם לא נתנן אלא ע”י יסורים. ואלו הן: תורה וארץ ישראל ועוה”ב.
It has been taught: Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai says: “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, and all of them were given only through suffering. These are they: The Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come.”
[Gemara (Talmud) Berachot 5a]
Astonishment at the Gemara (Talmudic) Statement
At first reading, Rabbi Shimon bar Yocḥai’s comment is not understandable at all. On one hand, bar Yocḥai states that God presented great gifts, while on the other, he notes that each is given at the cost of suffering. Under normal circumstances, when one gives a gift to a friend, it is given for the friend’s benefit, and the giver certainly does not intend his friend to suffer in order to receive the gift. In truth, it is astonishing from the perspective of the recipient as well. It is fair to assume that the average recipient would forego the gift rather than accept it with the condition that his acceptance entails suffering. How then are we to understand God’s gifts which are conditioned upon suffering? Could God not have given the gifts without our suffering? Why does bar Yocḥai refer to these as “precious gifts?”
It seems that reflection upon other comments of Chazal (our Sages) will allow us to understand bar Yocḥai’s intention.
If a Man Dies in a Tent
When the Torah presents the mitzva of פרה אדומה (the red heifer), it expounds the laws of tum’ah (ritual impurity) of a dead body, and states: “זאת התורה, אדם כי ימות באוהל, כל הבא אל האהל וכל אשר באהל יטמא שבעת ימים” (“This is the law (Torah): if a man dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent shall be unclean for seven days”) [Bamidbar (Numbers) 19:14].
The Gemara [Berachot 63b] asks: Is “a man dies in a tent” the Torah? Other mitzvot are not presented as “The law.” Why does the Torah choose this wording? Chazal answer that the Torah hints at something beyond the laws of purity, and explain that the reference is to Torah study – one must “kill himself” in the tent of Torah, that is, his entire being and essence must be invested in Torah study. One who is able to dedicate himself and all of his powers to Torah study is guaranteed that he will achieve understanding of Torah and be able to walk in its ways, while one who does not immerse himself completely in Torah study will not achieve these levels.
On a simple level, we can see this comment of the Sages as sensible and reasonable advice, since one who toils in order to achieve something is more likely to succeed than one who does not invest himself in pursuing that thing. If this were the case, we could assume that according to Chazals’ comment, those who are especially gifted and able to achieve things with ease would be exempt from complete investment in Torah study. However, this understanding of Chazals’ comment is totally incorrect.
My Wisdom Remained with Me
In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) [2:9], Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) states: “My wisdom remained with me.” Chazal [Yalkut Shimoni, Kohelet 968 explain that Shlomo HaMelech refers to the Torah which he toiled to study. At times one studies Torah but does not delve into its depths and is not disturbed by the fact that others have a different understanding than he. Shlomo HaMelech declares that only the Torah which he labored to understand and in which he invested effort remains with him.
Shlomo HaMelech was the wisest of men, and no doubt could have studied Torah without investing much effort, and still have a greater understanding than we can achieve, even if we toil over Torah all day long. Yet Shlomo HaMelech stated that only the Torah in which he invested himself remains with him.
Based upon this, we can understand that Chazals’ comment that “Words of Torah are firmly held (only) by one who kills himself for them” has a deeper meaning. Chazal did not intend that one who does not totally invest himself in Torah study will not know Torah, since this, indeed, is a matter of innate ability. Rather, Chazals’ intention concerns the personal connection to Torah and the bonding of the individual and the Torah he has studied. If one studies Torah without laboring over it, be he possessed of the greatest ability, he may know what he is written in the Torah, but it will not become part of him. When a person invests himself in something, he connects to it. The toil and investment in something create a strong and deep connection to that thing. Thus, if one who has the ability to know all of Torah does not invest and toil, it will remain something external to him, so that Torah neither will enter his heart nor will he be connected to it.
To convey the point, imagine a person who owns a very rare book and as well has a book he himself wrote, and each of these is the sole copy in existence. If he forced to give up one, it is reasonable to assume that he will give up the rare book, despite its value being far above his own book, since one is more connected to that in which he invested himself.
The Meaning of Suffering
Based upon the above, we can suggest that bar Yocḥai does not mean that in order to receive the precious gift of Eretz Yisrael we must suffer in a physical sense, as if experiencing pain, but that we must be devoted and committed to the Land. To be devoted to something is to invest in that thing and to toil ceaselessly until achieving it. God did not wish to give us gifts that do not require commitment, since that type of gift is not likely to be kept long by its recipient.
Precisely because the gifts require commitment, they are “precious gifts.”
Bar Yocḥai’s lesson is that in order to attain Torah, Eretz Yisrael and the World to Come it is necessary to be committed to those things. Without investing ourselves in them, these precious gifts cannot be realized.
Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel)
In order to reach Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) demonstrated complete commitment to her. Throughout the exile, ascending to Eretz Yisrael was most difficult, with many dying en route. In most generations, the majority of those who succeeded in reaching the Land were forced to live in poverty within her.
Establishing our state, as well, involved great hardships, from the travails of aliya to the wars of self-defense we have been forced to fight. Had Am Yisrael not been committed to the Land and invested in reaching her, the Land would not and could not have become part of the heart of Jews, nor would we have been privileged to return to her and live within her.
To our sorrow, our commitment to the Land is measured also in suffering. Suffice it to note the number of Jews killed and wounded simply because they wished to live in Eretz Yisrael. To our anguish, even now Jews are being killed only because they live in Eretz Yisrael.
However, we have the power to ensure that our commitment will not be turned into suffering.
And They will Enslave Them and Oppress Them
The first time we encounter the need to suffer in order to merit the Land of Israel is in ברית בין בתרים (“The Covenant of the Pieces”. God promised the Land to Avraham, but told him explicitly that before reaching the Land, his descendants will be oppressed in Egypt. [Bereishit (Genesis) 15:13] Zohar [3:153] understands the subjugation of the Israelites in terms of Torah study, which at first glance seems an incomprehensible statement. The Egyptian oppression is that Israelites will sit in the study hall, raising questions and resolving them!?! Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl [Talks on the Book of Exodus, 2] offers a beautiful explanation of Zohar’s perplexing comment: Israel was required to be subjugated in Egypt; however, the exact nature of that subjugation was a matter of the Israelites’ choice. Zohar teaches that had the Israelites taken upon themselves complete subjugation and total commitment to study of Torah, the Egyptians would not have subjugated them at all. Indeed, Chazal taught that the tribe of Levi accepted this subjugation to Torah and were unaffected by the Egyptians’ subjugation of Israel. Rabbi Nebenzal asserts that the Levites did not receive preferential treatment; rather they chose subjugation to Torah over subjugation to Pharaoh. They chose the “back breaking labor” [Shemot (Exodus) 1:13] of Torah study over the physical back breaking labor decreed by Pharaoh.
Contemporary Commitment to Eretz Yisrael
Based upon Rabbi Nebenzal’s comments, we may understand that in order to merit the Land it is necessary to suffer, but we have the option of choosing the type of suffering. As we have explained, “suffering” can be expressed through commitment rather than physical suffering. If we are all committed to building up the Land, perhaps we can negate the need for physical suffering. Our connection to the Land will be created by commitment and investment, rather than through physical suffering.
If one asks “How can we manifest our commitment to the Land?” we may suggest a number of options. It is necessary to build up the Land, to build in every part of her, to beautify her, to improve her economy, to be concerned about her social and spiritual status, to properly present the Land’s nature and situation to the nations of the world, to study and to teach the Land’s importance to the people of Israel, and the unbreakable bond between them.
If we invest our energy and efforts in connecting to the Land of Israel, we will be able to realize the precious gift given us by God and turn it into part of our essence, through commitment to her. Amen, may it be His will.