Ethics – Now & Then 18 – Avot 2:2

Avot 2:2 Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, says:
               Torah study is good together with an occupation, for the
               exertion of them both will make sins forgotten. All Torah
               study that is not joined with work will cease in the end and
               will lead to sin.
               All who exert themselves for the community should exert
               themselves for the sake of Heaven, for then the merit of the
               community’s forefathers aids them and their righteousness
               endures forever. Nevertheless, as for you, I [God] will bestow
               upon you as great a reward as if you had accomplished it on
               your own.

Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, says:
Torah study is good together with an occupation, for the exertion of them both will make sins forgotten. All Torah study that is not joined with work will cease in the end and will leads to sin.

The ethical principle of combining one’s study of the Bible with honest labor was heavily emphasized by the Sages. Then, as in some Ultra-Orthodox circles today, the temptation was to be overly preoccupied with Torah study and to neglect work, hence depending on others for support for extended periods. Hillel was an outstanding example in that, on his return to Jerusalem from Babylon in order to study under the great teachers of the day, Shemayah and Avtalyon, he was prepared to work as a menial day laborer in order to support his family and to pay for his studies. Shammai , who became Av Beit Din when Hillel was Nasi, had made a living as a contractor and builder before he became a teacher of Torah and was appointed to a position of leadership.

We see this emphasis continued by Yeshua himself, who worked as a carpenter with his father Joseph in Nazareth, and also the apostles. Paul, when necessary, worked as a tentmaker and Peter and his brothers were fishermen. It is uncertain whether Matthew continued at any time to work as a tax collector; although, without doubt, an honest tax collector would have been appreciated!

As ‘workers’ in the Kingdom of God today, we who work in any form of business or profession also need aim to apply the biblical-ethical principles in whatever field we are in and, as a result, to be fair and honest in all our decision making and dealings with others. Those who are called to combine their study of the Word of God with teaching or ministry are warned to be careful to not exploit their learning. As the apostle James cautions: “Not many of you should become teachers, …for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1).

This verse points out that if one does not apply what one learns the knowledge one gains will fade. Whatever is not lived out will become stale and worthless. Another danger arises for “permanent scholars” who do not work even when they are physically able. When they have needs that are not provided for by others they might be tempted into dishonest activity such as theft.

When our time is balanced, as a steady “three-legged stool,” with work, study of God’s Word and personal physical duties, our days will be full and rewarding and sin will be “forgotten.” Idleness, on the other hand, opens the door to temptations and “will lead to sin.”

All who exert themselves for the community should exert themselves for the sake of Heaven, for then the merit of the community’s forefathers aids them and their righteousness endures forever.

Apart from the reference to conversation being “for the sake of Heaven”, in other words, being in accord with the Kingdom purposes of God and honoring to His Name, this is the only exhortation in Pirkei Avot regarding the performance of an action “for the sake of Heaven.” We may surmise, therefore, that it is worthy of our attention. It is rather enigmatic, however, as surely all our actions should be honoring to God. Perhaps the implication here is that when one works directly in and for the wider community, the scale of one’s interaction and influence is considerably higher and, according to the size of community, the pitfalls and temptations are correspondingly greater. In high levels of public office, for example, one is awarded great power and influence which if misused, can lead to abuse and injustice.

The Hebrew word translated ‘community’ in this verse is tzibbur, from the root tzaddi-bet-resh. This is an acronym for tzaddikim, righteous ones, beinonim, average people, and r’shaim, wicked. Any large group of people will incorporate a mix of the three to a greater or lesser degree. A community leader or public worker does well to be aware of this and can then make allowances for the all-too-human personalities they interact with.

The phrase, “merit of the community’s forefathers,” reminds us also to take into account that the forefathers of the Judaeo-Christian faith are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, through whom came Jesus the Messiah. From one man came a family, then a nation, then a people numbering more than the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:15). In God’s great plan of Redemption, He “…desires that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Every individual is created in the image of God and is therefore worthy of consideration, compassion and respect.

Nevertheless, as for you, I [God] will bestow upon you as great a reward as if you had accomplished it on your own.

The running of any form of community, including, for example, a family or a business, is of necessity a team effort and is dependent on the co-operation of the group of people concerned. “As for you”…your part, no matter how seemingly small, when performed faithfully, is of such importance in God’s eyes that the reward will be as if you had done it all by yourself. Our Father longs to generously reward His children! When your work and efforts are done for His Name’s sake, then, irrespective of the outcome of the earthly venture, great will be your reward in Heaven.

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