"Shemayah says: Love the work, hate the status, and don't become intimate with authorities. "
Ethics of the Fathers 1:10
The underlying lesson in the Mishnah is illustrated by an incident that happened to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah, considered the archetypal wise man of his generation.
I [Rabbi Yehoshua] was once on a journey when I noticed a little boy sitting at a crossroad. "By what road," I asked him, "do we go to the town?"
"This one," the boy replied, "is the short-but-long road and that one is long-but-short road."
I proceeded along the "short-but-long" road. When I approached the town I discovered that gardens and orchards hedged it in. Retracing my steps I [encountered the same boy and] said to him, "My son, did you not tell me that this road was short?"
"Did I not also tell you that it is long?"
I kissed him upon his head and said to him, "Happy are you, O Israel! All of you are wise, both young and old." (Eruvin 53b)
Sometimes, we have a life-path before us that seems short but it's really long. Down the road a wall impossible to get around blocks it, forcing us to go back to square one. At the same time, there's a path that seems long but in actuality is short. This is the step-by-step, unspectacular road to achievement. It seems long and boring but it's really much shorter in the long run.
It's instructive that Rabbi Yehoshua is the one to whom this happened. For it teaches us that no matter who we are, or how far along in life we are no one, not even the wisest of the wise is immune from the temptation to take the easy way out.
LOVE THE WORK
Rabbi Yehoshua's lesson is the starting point of Shamayah's teaching in our Mishnah.
First, the Mishnah doesn't just say, "Love work." It says, "Love the work." The former might lead us to believe it's speaking exclusively about work in the sense of career and making a living. However, by adding the definite article (et hamelachah -- the work) the phrase includes work that transcends mere career, referring to work that applies to every situation. Thus, no matter what we're doing -- whether it's making a living, raising children, studying Torah, etc. -- Shemayah tells us to love the "work," -- love the effort involved, not just the results.
Shemayah himself was a convert. He wasn't born into privilege. He didn't have a father who taught him Torah and paved the way for him. He probably never entertained the thought when younger that the entire nation, for generations to come, would revere him for his wisdom. When he undertook Torah study it was out of "love of the work," not the results.
Furthermore, he wouldn't tell us this if it was human nature to always love work. Quite the contrary, the natural tendency is to seek shortcuts. Nevertheless, Shemayah says, it's possible to overcome this nature, and train ourselves to love the work, even when it's difficult and trying.
What's the real advantage of working to earn something rather than just getting it without the effort?
Imagine a non-paved dirt street after a torrential downpour. It's knee-deep with mud. And imagine two people who need to get to the other side. One of them gets a running start, leaps with all his might and somehow manages to land on the other side. The other person gets down on his hands and knees and starts clearing a path from his side of the street to the other.
What's the difference between these two methods?
The former performed an incredible feat. But it's a one-time feat. He can't go back. The effort and energy involved is just not possible to duplicate.
The latter person, however, has done the "ground work." It may have been a lot messier and much more time-consuming, but once he's cleared his path he can freely go back and forth.
The greatest application of this principle is arguably in the realm of the spiritual. In the material world it's possible to conceive that shortcuts exist. One person is born into wealth and doors open for him. Another person has connections and obtains privileges that others have to work for.
However, the pursuit of spiritual gains offers no shortcuts. When you seek shortcuts in the spiritual you always lose in the long run. When you plow through and take all the necessary time and steps to reach your spiritual goal, the gains you achieve stick with you.
The Midrash teaches that the revelation of God at the splitting of the Red Sea was so potent that even the lowliest maidservants saw visions greater than the prophet Ezekiel. This is hard to understand, because the Book of Ezekiel contains some of the most profound visions in all Scripture, including details of the Third Temple. Was the lowly maidservant really greater than the great and holy prophet?
However, the maidservant at the Red Sea was like the person who jumped across the muddy street. God performed a miracle and she saw things that no one afterward saw, not even Ezekiel. However, since she didn't do the hard work to earn the vision it was only a one-time vision.
Ezekiel, on the other hand, was like the person who worked to clear a path in the mud. He trained to be a prophet from his youth, and took all the necessary steps until he made broke through to the other side. As a result, he wasn't merely the recipient of a one-time vision. He beheld God over and over again.
So, love the work -- the groundwork, the dirty work -- in pursuit of the spiritual, and the material as well. It's the sure path to permanent achievement.
What can derail progress grounded in the "love of the work"?
During Shemayah's time the heretical sect, the Sadducees, were ascendant and would wield significant influence until the destruction of the Temple. However their entire power base was rooted in wealth and position. That's the main reason they disappeared after the destruction of the Temple when the nation fell into ruins and became impoverished. Despite claims to high ideals, the Sadducees ultimately represented a hollow philosophy.
Of course, in their heyday this was not so obvious. They presented themselves as people interested in the truth, in Torah. The Talmud is filled with arguments they made on the fine points of Jewish law. It wasn't inconceivable that a rising scholar in the time of Shemayah might go to their camp, especially since the Sadducees at various times held positions in the Sanhedrin and the Temple.
Only in retrospect is it obvious their message was hollow and temporal. That's why Shemayah exhorts, "Hate the status."
If you love the work and eschew the results, you'll not only succeed but eventually achieve the status as well.
The phrase literally translates: "Hate the Rabbinate." However, he doesn't mean to tell his disciples to never become rabbis or hold positions of influence as a rabbi. Shemayah himself eventually achieved the highest rabbinical position in the nation. Rather, he's saying to hate the status that comes along with the rabbinate. (Hence, the translation, "Hate the status".)
This applies not only to Torah scholars but anyone in any field. A doctor in medical school should love healing and helping people, not just the status and financial rewards that come with the turf. The sad truth is, however, that some either lose their love of the work or only discover later their true motivations. They're often the ones with the grumpy demeanor and deplorable bedside manner. Somewhere along the line they lost the love of the work and settled for the status.
If you love the work and eschew the results, you'll not only succeed but eventually achieve the status as well. However, it will be a natural consequence of the hard work you put in, not the artificial result of a strong marketing campaign.
INTIMACY WITH AUTHORITY
After a person's genuine efforts lead to success in life, there is still a danger. And this is the last part of Shemayah's teaching.
This last phrase uses an unusual word which translates fairly accurately as "intimacy," because the root-word used means, "carnal knowledge," as in "And Adam knew his wife Eve."
"Authorities" -- reshut in Hebrew -- literally means "permission." The phrase then means: "Don't share the deepest type of intimacy with those who give permission."
In its simplest, literal sense this fits in with the Judea of Shemayah's time. It was a land drowning in a maelstrom of political intrigue. Between internal Jewish politics and external interference from Greek, Hellenistic and ultimately Roman influence Judea was a revolving door of one king/governor/politician after another. Shemayah, then, is teaching rising scholars about the impermanence of political influence. It doesn't last.
However, his use of the word "intimacy" implies that he's not necessarily telling them never to get involved in politics. Sometimes it's necessary. Nevertheless, it should never become more than a "casual relationship," as opposed to a marriage where true intimacy, "carnal knowledge," defines the relationship.
Bringing this home to the personal level, success breeds its own type of challenges. People come knocking at your door that wouldn't have given you the time of day beforehand. To quote Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: "[If I were a rich man…] the most important men in town will come to fawn on me. They will ask me to advise them like a Solomon the Wise… And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong -- When you're rich, they think you really know."
It's not necessarily wrong to encourage and/or take advantage of relationships with various types of power brokers. Nevertheless, such relationships aren't meant to reach the level of intimacy involved with real friendships. Don't let yourself become dependent upon power brokers, because their friendship simply isn't deeply rooted.
The bottom line, Shemayah exhorts, is never give up your internal focus. Train yourself to love work and hate status. Ultimately, know your limits, and set boundaries with people and situations that promise you quick, easy results.
This article was written with my father, Chaim Benyamin ben Esther, in mind. May he have a refuah shlaimah.