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Shabbat Parashat Vayechi| 5763

I Want to be a Donkey

Chazal (Bereishit Rabba 99:9), indeed Tanach itself, tell us that Yissachar was the tribe which specialized in Torah study. What metaphor does Ya’akov use to symbolize his task in life? “Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey… He saw rest (menucha) that it was good and the land that it was pleasant, yet he bent his shoulder to bear [the load], and he became an indentured laborer” (Bereishit 49:14-15).
First and foremost, becoming a talmid chacham requires perseverance and the willingness to suffer through difficulties (intellectual, physical, financial) in search of the goal. The discipline and often thankless hard work required to develop is described by the work of the donkey, passing loads from place to place with little opportunity to rest. But Ya’akov goes out of his way to stress that which precedes (or should, in any case) the decision to take on the load (following the donkey motif). First one should realize that menucha (rest, a simpler life; we are told that talmidei chachamim ein lahem menucha) is good. He should also be aware that a life on the land (as a farmer) is pleasant, and very much halachically and religiously appropriate for many. One must first be taught and/or realize that there are wonderful ways of life, which surround and serve Torah, but are not exclusive, full-time Torah study. The hope is that despite this fact, there will be those, like Yissachar, who are drawn to a life dedicated more directly to the study of Torah. A decision to dedicate one’s “sweat and blood” to the study of Torah is complete when other alternatives are considered.
The last Rambam in the section of Zeraim praises those from other tribes who decide to take on a Levi-like spiritual life in which they throw off such mundane considerations as making a living. One who studies that and other passages of the Rambam will see that such a decision is not to be taken lightly nor is it one which should be pressured onto a person. It is one which a person, being exposed both to the world around him and to the true, unadulterated beauty of Torah, should make.
Yissachar wanted to be “a donkey.” We need many good people to make that choice, and to make it in an informed manner which shows a true desire to sanctify Hashem’s name through the study and teaching of His Torah.
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