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In Service of the King: Ethics of Fathers 4:6

In Service of the King: Ethics of Fathers 4:6

How the wishes of our hearts can shape our reality.

by
Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yossi says: One who studies Torah in order to teach is granted the ability to learn and to teach; but one who studies in order to practice is granted the ability to learn, to teach, to observe, and to practice.
Ethics of Fathers 4:6

The story of Aladdin and the genie is one of the most enduring in popular folklore. The very notion of wish-fulfillment tantalizes us with its endless possibilities and disconcerts us with the prospect of misusing such an extraordinary opportunity. Yet this fanciful tale did not originate as one of Scheherazade's Arabian Nights. Rather, it traces its origins back to biblical times, not to myth or legend but to the earliest days of the Jewish monarchy.

Scripture testifies that King Solomon was the wisest of all men. When he assumed the throne at age 12, however, Solomon seems to have questioned his own ability to rule wisely. Wishing to allay the young monarch's fears, the Almighty appeared to him in a prophetic dream:

And God said, "Ask for that which I should give to you." And Solomon replied, "Give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, so that I will be able to discern between good and evil." And God said to him, "Behold, I have given you a wise and understanding heart... and I have also given you that which you have not asked, both riches and honor" (1 Kings 3:5-13).

That the Almighty bestowed upon Solomon the wisdom necessary to rule the Jewish people is easy for us to understand. But why did God grant the young king riches and honor as well? The sages offer the following parable: A king once summoned his chief advisor and instructed him, in appreciation for his years of wise and loyal service, to ask for any reward he desired. Said the advisor to himself, "I could ask for riches or power, but if I ask for the hand of the king's daughter in marriage, then I shall indeed have everything."

At first glance, the sages' allegory seems to miss the meaning of the biblical narrative altogether. Where scripture clearly implies that God rewarded Solomon for his selflessness, the parable seems to depict the king's advisor as a self-seeking opportunist.

However, the sages crafted their verbal images with nuance and subtlety, alluding to the same profound lesson that we find articulated by Rabbi Yishmael in our mishna. Guided by his allegiance to the king, the advisor in the parable recognizes that wealth and power will not truly benefit him, since they will only serve to distance him from his master. The advisor has no desire for the independence that riches and honor will accord him; his only wish is for the closest possible relationship with the ruler whose service defines his own sense of self and purpose.

The advisor therefore chooses the hand of the king's daughter, whereby he will become more than a servant -- he will become a son. Bound to the king, whatever wealth and power may subsequently come his way will provide him with greater resources to employ in his master's service, but will not become a source of perceived autonomy that threatens to sever the connection between them.

The Torah is an instruction manual for purposeful existence.

Contained in the sages' allegory is the reminder that we should all see ourselves as servants of the One King. And just as both money and power should be regarded only as the means to a greater end, so too should Torah study never be mistaken for mere intellectual exercise. Torah is a way of life, a guide for moral refinement, an instruction manual for purposeful existence and the fulfillment of spiritual potential. Applying the example of King Solomon, Rabbi Yishmael comes to teach us three remarkable concepts concerning the acquisition of Torah wisdom, and how our objectives in studying Torah will determine what the Torah becomes for us.

Rabbi Yishmael's first point is that, like Solomon, the sincere desire to acquire wisdom in order to benefit others will inevitably yield success. As the Talmud says: If one claims he toiled but did not succeed, do not believe him; if he claims he succeeded without toil, do not believe him; but if he claims he toiled and succeeded, then he should be believed. If we apply ourselves as faithful servants, we are promised that we will see the fruits of our labors.

Second, if other gifts are necessary for the fulfillment of a higher goal, they too will be granted. If one wishes to teach, then he will be granted the ability to learn so that he may become a teacher. If one wishes to "practice" -- meaning that he seeks to incorporate the values of Godliness into every aspect of his thoughts, words, and deeds -- then he will be granted the ability to observe the commandments of the Torah as a means of refining his spiritual character.

Finally, if one's objectives are guided only by self-interest, even if that self-interest is of a spiritual nature, then he is guaranteed nothing. If he seeks to learn Torah as merely an exercise in abstract philosophy or to accrue heavenly reward, certainly he cannot count on divine assistance. But even when he wishes to cling to his Creator but harbors no interest for the spiritual welfare of his fellow, then he excludes himself from the category of those who are promised that the illumination of Torah wisdom will brighten their eyes and guide their hearts.

When we feel distant from the Almighty, we had best ask ourselves if we have drifted away from our fellow Jews. The blessing of Torah is both individual and collective. Each of us must be worthy in his own right, but we must also have the welfare of the community as our ultimate goal. When we do, we will discover that the floodgates of divine wisdom will open wide so that the life-giving waters of Torah rush forth to nourish our souls and revive the spirit of our nation.

Published: September 6, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Shareef Abdul-Kareem, September 9, 2009 12:57 PM

A Phd student also

Like Steven, I am a Phd student and, I do have difficult moments in arriving at a good study routine; however even though I am not a Jew, the words of Rabbi Noah (May G-d bless him and his descendants), and readings from the Torah, gives me the inspiration to start each day.

(1) Steven Edward Aanes, September 6, 2009 1:49 PM

todah...

Thank you so much for this essay. I needed this because I have been trying to figure out why I just cannot get into the frame of mind I must be in order to finally start that necesary PhD work. I just was not in the neshamah that I needed to be in because I was selfishly prioritizing myself as first. My yetzer hara was tickling my ear and he is a crafty one. Knowing that Torah has been given as the rule and guide for my faith and practice, I can now seek more study in my field as one who wishes to lead by example. This, as I learned as a cadet, is the first principle of leadership. With great knowledge comes great responsibility. Therefore, it must be that we should always grant the credit for all things good to the Author of All. Still, I have always been a self-doubter. Why, I wonder, should this be a good thing? Maybe if I am full of self-doubt, this is G_d's way of keeping me in touch with Him. Indeed, what beauty sublime is in the details of His works, great and small, but all is important.

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