Parashat Reeh: The Reward for Early Struggles
The Gemara in Masechet Ta’anit (9a) tells that Rabbi Yohanan once saw a schoolchild coming out of school, and asked him which verse he studied that day. The child answered by citing a verse from Parashat Re’eh (14:22) in which the Torah introduces the obligation to tithe one’s annual produce: “Aser Te’aser.” Rabbi Yohanan then asked the child to interpret this phrase, and the child answered, “Aser Bishbil She’tit’asher” – “tithe so that you become wealthy.” The phrase “Aser Te’aser” alludes to the fact that by giving tithes – a Misva which we fulfill nowadays by donating one-tenth of our earnings to charity – one earns wealth.
The Kedushat Siyon (by Rav Bentzion Halberstam of Bobov, 1874-1941) offers a deeper insight into this story. He explains that when Rabbi Yohanan saw this student, he sensed that the child was struggling, and was having difficulty understanding the material being taught. And so after hearing that the child learned the verse, “Aser Te’aser,” Rabbi Yohanan drew his attention to the interpretation, “Aser Bishbil She’tit’asher,” that giving charity eventually brings wealth. When one parts with a portion of his hard-earned income, and, despite having his own financial pressures and his own bills to pay, donates funds to charity, he at first experiences a loss. His balance in the bank drops, and his financial status appears to worsen. But with time, perhaps only years later, he will be rewarded for his generosity and will be blessed with wealth. Rabbi Yohanan was assuring this child that this is true of Torah study, as well. At first, in the early stages of a person’s Torah education, he invariably encounters difficulty. He feels frustrated and upset, figuring he is wasting his time as he struggles in vain to understand the material. But as in the case of charity, the rewards eventually come. Although the process of Torah learning begins with struggle and hardship, one who invests the effort will eventually find himself capable of understanding and internalizing what he learns.
The Mishna in Avot famously teaches, “Yagati U’masati Ta’amin” – if a person says that he toiled in Torah study and was successful, he should be believed. This is in contrast to somebody who says that he toiled and did not succeed, or that he achieved success without toiling, who must not be believed. The only one of these three claims which can be assumed correct is “Yagati U’masati” – that one achieved success in Torah learning through hard work and diligence. A number of commentators raised the question of why the Mishna uses the term “Masati” – literally, “I found” – in reference to success in this context. Usually, the root “M.S.A.” denotes something a person discovers without effort, like a valuable object which one happens to find as he goes about his business. Why is this term used in the context of hard work and effort in Torah study?
The commentators explain that indeed, after the initial struggles, one “finds” his success. After one overcomes the initial hurdles and prevails over the early struggles of Torah learning, he will reach the point where he “finds” success, where he acquires knowledge and understanding easily. The experienced student frequently arrives at new insights and absorbs knowledge almost by accident, without effort, armed with the skills and information he gained over the course of his years of struggle.
Just as we cannot expect to enjoy wealth and prosperity immediately after giving charity, yet we fully trust in the Torah’s promise of reward for charitable donations, similarly, we must trust that our struggles and effort to understand complex, difficult areas of Torah will eventually yield rewards, and today’s hard work will allow us to easily absorb and internalize the sacred words of the Torah in the future.