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The Impoverished Scholar

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Rabbi Jonathan would say: Whoever fulfills the Torah in poverty, will ultimately fulfill it in wealth.

Ethics of the Fathers 4:9

Our sages have said: “The only true poverty is poverty of the mind.”[1] According to this, we can understand the deeper significance of Rabbi Jonathan’s words.

It is a common perception that in order to succeed in any given field, a person requires a certain degree of self-assurance. He must approach his subject with the confidence that “I can do it,” that he possesses the character and mental capacities required to master it. Without at least a trace of such “arrogance” he stands little chance of attaining his goal.

Regarding the study and implementation of Torah, the very opposite is true. To comprehend Torah is to comprehend the wisdom of G-d; to follow its commandments is to actualize the divine will in physical life. One who believes that his mortal mind possesses the capacity to master Torah or that his physical being is a fit vehicle to fulfill the mitzvot, is least capable of attaining these goals. His understanding of Torah will most likely be a biased perversion of the divine truth; his daily life will probably be guided by a humanly-contrived ethos rather than the will of G-d.

A person must approach Torah with the understanding that his finite mind is inadequate a tool to grasp the infinite and eternal truth of Torah, and that “were it not that G-d helps him, he could not overcome” the subjectivity and egocentrism of his physical self.[2] He must understand that Torah is a gift from G-d, and that all the studying, analyzing and theorizing involved in its pursuit is merely the construction of a “vessel” to receive its divine essence. He must understand that the sanctification of physical life is beyond the capacity of mortal man, and that he can only commit himself to fulfill the divine will and pray to G-d for assistance in overcoming his negative drives.

A person who fulfills the Torah in poverty—who recognizes the poverty of his mind before the infinite perfection of the divine truth—will ultimately fulfill it in wealth. G-d will grant him the mental and psychological resources to assimilate the wisdom of Torah and fully realize its precepts in his daily life.

Based on an address by the Rebbe,  Sivan 14, 5746 (June 21, 1986)

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[1]. Talmud, Ketubot 68a.

[2]. Ibid., Kiddushin 30b.

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