In these two lines we learn how to learn Torah and balance our personal, communal and spiritual needs, from the lips of the great Rabbi Hillel the Elder.
He [also] used to say: one who makes his name great causes his name to be destroyed; one who does not add [to his knowledge] causes [it] to cease; one who does not study [the Torah] deserves death; on who makes [unworthy] use of the crown [of learning] shall pass away.Avot 1:13
- ‘Naged’=to spread. If he ‘spreads his name’ he is lording his Torah learning over others. For this his name will be lost. Meaning one will be punished if they use their Torah learning to glorify themselves personally instead of to glorify G-d.
- If he does not ‘add’ to his Torah learning, he loses the Torah he has learned. There is no standing still. One is either moving forward or backward. So one must constantly strive and continue to learn and grow, lest one backslide.
- And ‘one who does not add’ to his Torah learning will die before his time (be killed) because Torah lengthens one’s life. As it says in Deuteronomy 4:9, “And you shall keep it and it will protect your soul/life.” This is not always literally true in this world, as we know from the book of Job, an extended meditation on people NOT getting their just desserts in this world, and as addressed by many Jewish thinkers throughout history. The answer I find the most satisfying is that an afterlife is a theological necessity for this reason: since we all know that ‘bad things happen to good people,’ we know there must be an afterlife where justice is served (Ramcha”l). This is the simplest answer. Deeper discussion will have to wait for another forum…
- “One who uses the crown (Torah) as a tool, will die (pass).” One must learn Torah for it’s own sake and to serve G-d, and not make it a tool to serve one’s own self-interest. For instance, is one learning to be lenient in order to serve your own desires? Or learning to be strict to enforce your own will on others or assuage your own anxieties? Instead one must learn lishma, with the desire to fulfill G-d’s will, not one’s own. This is why we pray that G-d make our will in line with his own (which we believe the process of learning Torah helps us do).
He [also] used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?Avot 1:14
- But lest we think that any self-interest is forbidden, the compiler of the Mishna immediately brings this statement to clarify that we must also be our own advocate. It is only the misuse of Torah learning for self-interest which the previous Mishnah admonishes us to avoid, not to be totally selfless ‘like an angel.’ We are given drives and desires in this world, and we should serve them, but channeled towards positive, holy ends.
- Thus, “if I am not for myself who will be for me?” I must stand up for my own needs.
- “And if I am [only] for myself what am I?” Instead I must balance my needs with those of others, or the higher needs I have left to accomplish.
- “And if not now, when?” If not in this life, then I will have no chance because the next world is only for reward and punishment, in which we can no longer make choices and change the status of our soul. Alternately, now why I’m young and strong, not when I’m old and these choices and my strength have passed me by, or alternately as challenges come and I will not necessarily get a second chance…