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Speaking to the Soul: The Real Work of Life

Speaking to the Soul: The Real Work of Life

by Linda McMillan


…for thereunto wast thou created


Almost everybody I know in the USA is working pretty well day and night to make ends meet, make that mortgage payment, save a little for the kid’s college fund, and retirement… well, we live in hope of a retirement. It’s work, work, work all the time. Because, hey, if you don’t want to do it, somebody else does.

A lot of us feel that we could be doing something else, something we love, something of real value if it weren’t for our many obligations. The dreams we may have had, or the hopes we still harbor are still flickering. But the rent won’t wait. And when we hear others speak of their “vocation,” their “special charism,” or worse, their “calling,” it makes the job we already hate seem all the worse because it’s not a vocation, it’s a trial.

You were not created for that. You were created for Torah study. Rabbi Jochanan said, “If thou hast learnt much Torah, ascribe not any merit to thyself, for thereunto wast thou created.

It’s not easy, this true vocation of Torah study. But it is a real job. It’s your job, and mine. R. Meir calls it a labor when he says, “Whosoever labors in the Torah for its own sake merits many things… “ Elsewhere in Prike Avot, R. Nechunya is said to compare Torah to a yoke. Of course, you only use a yoke for working.

It doesn’t pay in money. Yes, we still have to work at the other job to pay the rent, but the rewards of Torah study are pretty great. R. Meir goes on to say that Torah study gives the student “…sovereignty and dominion and discerning judgment; to him the secrets of the Torah are revealed; he is made like a never-failing spring and like a river that flows on with every-increasing vigor; he becomes modest, long-suffering, and forgiving of insults; and it magnifies and exalts him above all things.”

And Torah study is something you can do with your friends, or you can do it alone. R. Chalafta. Said that “when ten people occupy themselves with the Torah, the Shechina abides among them.” He continues to say that this saying can be applied to five people, even to three people. Even if only two meet to talk about Torah, this saying applies. It even applies to only one person because it is said “in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come unto thee and I will bless thee.”

Of course, if you have Torah you are never really alone. You have thousands of amazing characters occupying your mind, and you are in the joyful company of all the saints who have also studied Torah.

There are some warnings about Torah study. If you want to be praised, earn money, or become great because of your Torah study then you’re in for a tough time of it. R. Zadock said,  “Make not of Torah a crown herewith to aggrandize thyself, nor a spade wherewith to dig.” Hillel said, “he who makes a worldly use of the crown of Torah shall waste away. Whoever derives a profit for himself from the words of the Torah is helping on his own destruction.

But don’t study Torah to avoid divine censure. Do it because it is life, and joy, and it’s your companion. Rabbi Jose ben Kisma tells this story:

I was once traveling on the road when a man met me and saltued me, and I returned the salutation. He said to me, Rabbi from what place art thou? I said to him I come from a great city of sages and scribes. He said to me, If thou art willing to dwell with us in our place, I will give thee a thousand thousand golden dinars and precious stones and pearls. I said to him, Wert thou to give me all the silver and gold and precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a home of the Torah; and thus it is written in the book of Psalms by the hands of David, King of Israel: the law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver. Moreover, in the hour of a man’s departure neither silver nor gold nor precious stones nor pearls accompany him, but only Torah and good works, as it is said:  When thou walkest it shall lead thee; when thou liest down it shall watch over thee; and when thou awakes it shall talk to thee.

It is true that many of us will return home today from jobs we really hate, and it’s also true that many of us are too tired for vigorous Torah study. But you can let Torah lead you while you’re walking, almost everybody walks. You can let Torah watch over you while you are resting, everybody rests. And you can listen for her voice in the morning as she whispers her stories, tells her tales, unfolds her secrets for thereunto wast thou created.




Linda McMillan is in Yanogn, Myanmar.


Some Notes of Possible Interest

All quotes above are from Pirkei Avot. You might have heard it called the “Ethics of Our Fathers.” It is a very well-known Jewish text. Almost everyone has heard something from Pirkei Avot, whether they knew that’s where it was from or not. It is part of the Mishna, or oral Torah. That’s why so many of the sayings in Pirkei Avot begin with “Name said…” It was originally spoken. It also gives us a little information about each rabbi which may help us understand his legal decisions elsewhere in the Mishna. The sayings in Pirkei Avot are not binding, though. Pirkei Avot is so well loved that some Jewish prayer books reprint it in the prayer book, others just print part of it. It is traditional to read portions of the Pirkei Avot on Shabbat. Here is an article about it.

For more on Shechina go here


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