Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues

Parashas Vayechi

Toiling in Torah

Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey crouching at the boundaries.?(Bereishis 49:14)

Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey: he bears the yoke of the Torah like a strong donkey upon which may be placed a heavy load [Bereishis Rabbah 99:9]. Crouching at the boundaries: like a donkey that travels day and night and has no permanent stable of its own. When it wishes to rest, it crouches down between the borders - at the boundaries of the townsto which it is carrying merchandise.?(Rashi)

The following is from Yalkut Lekach Tov, p. 311, citing Shem Olam by the Chofetz Chaim, ch. 10.

There are some fundamental concepts concerning Torah study that are alluded to in Ya'akov's blessing to Yissachar. The Torah is implying that the nature of a talmid chacham is to toil in Torah day and night, giving no heed to his personal comfort or physical pleasure. When he finishes one tractate, he rests a bit and celebrates with a festive meal in honor of the Torah. Afterwards, he immediately begins a new tractate and so on, laboring endlessly - like a donkey.

This idea is what Chazal are referring to in Avodah Zarah 5b, where it states: "A person should always apply himself in Torah study like an ox to the yoke and a donkey to the load." An ox was created to plow the land, which will then be able to yield the crop that was planted therein. The donkey's job is to transport the produce after it has grown and been harvested. The labor of these two animals provides a paradigm for Torah study. First, one must "plow" by sweating and toiling to understand the Torah's teachings. However, this alone is not enough. Once a person comprehends what the Torah says, he must "carry it" by constantly reviewing it so that he won't forget what he has learned.

Gems and the Journey

And he saw that repose was good, and that the land was pleasant; and he bent his shoulder to the burden, and he became an indentured servant.?(Bereishis 49:15)

This verse constitutes the conclusion of Yissachar's blessing. We have just seen that his blessing relates primarily to Torah study. That being the case, this verse appears to present a difficulty. Learning Torah is enjoyable! If so, why is it referred to as a burden?

The Chofetz Chaim explains this with a parable:

A wealthy individual who dealt in precious gems once had to travel to a distant land for business purposes. Before departing, he withdrew from the bank 3000 rubles with which to conduct business and 400 more to cover his travel expenses. When he reached his destination, he used 3000 rubles to purchase merchandise, and he was left with just 200 rubles to pay for his return trip.

As he was about to depart for home, a fellow gem dealer proposed a deal involving some very expensive gems at an especially low price. The merchant replied that although the proposal sounded enticing, he had already spent all the money he'd brought with him and didn't have the means to conclude any more deals at the present time.

However, the dealer wouldn't take no for an answer and pressed him to at least take a look at the stones. "Once you see them, you'll understand that this is an opportunity you can't afford to pass up!" And so it happened. The merchant gasped in astonishment when he saw the contents of the tiny box. Never before had he seen gems like these. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The stones were obviously worth a fortune, and the owner was willing to sell them for the paltry sum of 200 rubles. The seller explained that he was in trouble with the government and had to leave the city quickly. He was disposing of his merchandise before it was confiscated by the authorities, and was selling it for next to nothing.

The merchant was now in a quandary. On the one hand, it was unthinkable to forgo such an incredible deal. On the other hand, if he were to spend the rest of his money, he wouldn't have anything left for his journey home. After an agonizing internal debate, he decided he just couldn't pass up this remarkable opportunity to make such a tremendous profit. As for the journey home, it was a relatively brief trip anyway, and he was willing to suffer a little deprivation for such a short time. He paid for the gems with his travel money, keeping just 20 rubles to pay for the return trip. That would suffice for the barest necessities. The seller gave him the small box containing the gems, and the deal was concluded.

The gem merchant started on his way home. When he came to an inn to rest, he didn't eat in the elegant room where the prosperous travelers dined, nor did he order a private suite as he always did. Instead, he ate with the poor wagon drivers in the main hall, which also served as a communal bedroom.

At a certain stopover, he bumped into one of his rich friends, who asked him, "Hey, what are you doing with all the poor travelers?! Why aren't you upstairs in the business suites?"

"You don't know how much grief you're causing me," the merchant replied. "But you know how much a person is willing to suffer in order to make a few hundred rubles. That's why I'm here. By forgoing all the luxuries of traveling in style, I stand to make several thousand rubles!" He then showed his friend the gems and told him all about the special deal he had made. After hearing the story, his friend commented, "Well, what you're doing does make sense, but I'm still surprised you're able to put up with such terrible living conditions. I know you were brought up in the lap of luxury."

The merchant replied, "You're right. When I think about it too much, it really depresses me. But then I open up the little box and contemplate the shining gems, and that cheers me up!"

The Chofetz Chaim comments:

This is exactly the case with one who has come into this world to acquire Torah and good deeds. These are the true precious gems in life, as it says: "More precious than pearls" (Mishlei 3:15). We know what it says in Pirkei Avos (6:4): "This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, live a life of deprivation, and toil in Torah." The Tanna is instructing us to live our lives in the simplest fashion during our short sojourn in this world. We should be satisfied with nothing more than the basic necessities. Then, we will acquire a portion in Torah that is more precious than anything in this world. In return for all the suffering we endure in this world, we will acquire fulfillment and bliss for eternity.

The soul will most certainly agree to such a deal, for this is the way a person can gain the greatest amount of precious merchandise in the brief time allotted him. The body, however, is a different story, for it detests this lowly way of life. The solution is for one to constantly contemplate the eternal pleasure awaiting him in reward for the Torah and good deeds he labored to acquire by fighting his evil inclination. After contemplating this, his eyes will be enlightened and he will no longer consider avodas Hashem to be an encumbrance. Instead, he will bend "his shoulder to the burden" and bear the yoke of Torah and Divine service.

This is the intent of the verses concerning Yissachar. First the Torah says: "Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey," teaching that a ben Torah must accept the yoke of Torah and continually study day and night - like the donkey, which is accustomed to bear a load constantly. Moreover, we should not be surprised that a person would willingly accept such a ponderous burden, which goes against human nature. Concerning this, the Torah continues: "And he saw that repose was good, and that the land was pleasant." "Repose" and "the land" allude to different levels of Gan Eden, which await him in recompense for his efforts. After realizing this, "he bent his shoulder to the burden."

Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Rosh Yeshiva
Yeshiva Shaare Chaim.

Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop ? Lakewood).

If you would like to correspond with Rabbi Parkoff please contact him: or 732-325-1257

Yeshiva Shaare Chaim
Rechov Sorotzkin 3
Jerusalem, Israel

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel