Pirke Avot, chapter two, verse two: Community Merit

It’s surprisingly difficult to concentrate today, or perhaps not so surprising, what with one thing and another. Have I ever given my rant about how wonderful Spring is? I grew up in the desert, you know, so Spring is still new to me. Well, anyway.

I A. Rabban Gamaliel, son of R. Judah the Patriarch, says, “Fitting is learning in Torah along with a craft, for the labor put into the two of them makes one forget sin.
  B. “And all learning of Torah which is not joined with labor is destined to be null and cause sin.
II C. “And all who work with the community—let them work with them for the sake of Heaven.
  D. “for the merit of their fathers strengthens them, and their [fathers’] righteousness stands forever.
  E. “And as for you, I credit you with a great reward, as if you had done [all of the work required by the community on your own merit alone].”

Jacob Neusner doesn’t indicate here who the speaker is in E, whether it is still Gamaliel son of Judah the Nasi or whether Gamaliel is attributing this sentiment to the Divine. Either way, it’s a bit murky. R. Travers Herford says “The lesson is a fine one, though expressed less clearly than might be wished.” But what lesson?

We’re looking at the question of merit, who accrues it and who benefits from it, and we’re looking at people who work with the community. Mr. Herford distills this into a simple idea: people who work with the community are not judged solely on their own actions, but on the actions of others within the community. Therefore, the merit of their fathers counts to their benefit, as they maintain the traditions within the community, and the merit of people within the community count to their benefit, as they are working with the community for the sake of Heaven. If you are wanting to add up extra merit, here’s a way to do it. A force multiplier. Yes? It is a simple idea, and a profound one, I think. Although it leads to this question of what exactly we mean by merit; are we talking about a worldly merit as we ask ourselves who is worthy of respect and emulation? Or are we talking about a Divine Judgment? Are we talking about what the Divine judges us for as he inscribes us in the Book of Life? Or are we talking about perhaps some objective scale of success? What does merit do for a fellow?

And even if we simply say that merit, whatever it is, is good, what does this tell us about how to act? Can we rely on the strengthening effect of the merit of our fathers? Is the merit of our fathers reserved for those who work for the Community (veddevah dat means)? If the merit earned by our community is put in our column, is this also true of demerits? And what about the demerits of our fathers?

This half of the verse ties, then, into the first half, in the questions of what constitutes useful work for the community, what are the obligations that such work entails, and what are the rewards of such work. I don’t think that Gamaliel son of Judah the Prince is doing very much to answer that with any clarity. But I do think that the merit here in this verse is in the question. I think that the questions this verse provokes are the sorts of questions that are easily ignored because they aren’t easily answered. Is the work that I do for the sake of the Heavenly Name? Is it the sort of work that gathers to itself the merit of the avot? What are the actions of the community that deserve merit, and do I deserve a share of that merit?

For me, I, well, I work in a library, which is a sort of service to the community, although of course a person could say that about working in a toll booth or a coffee shop. And have some justice in it. But I do spend a good portion of my day helping people; it ain’t schoolteaching, but it’s helpful. I do think that the library that employs me is a community resource, and the benefit to the community that comes through here does, I think, come to all of us who work here, a bit. I mean, when one of the Hartford City Councilors came in to do some work on the budget using our computers and resources the other day, I was able to feel that yes, we have helped out a bit. And the fellow who is writing his memoirs, and the woman who needed something for her performance preparation; we’re helping a bit, there, too. And, of course, there are all those students taking courses; I lose track of how that exactly helps the community, but it’s there, anyway.

And, of course, it leaves me enough time and energy, on a Saturday, to blog. That’s important, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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