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Balancing Values


Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is known in rabbinic tradition for his wisdom, maturity, and leadership at a young age. In this Mishnah, he provides four sets of intellectual and moral values that dynamically interact to shape a broad and balanced character, where Torah can be successfully integrated with other life domains. As Rabbi Berel Wein formulates Rabbi Elazar’s worldview communicated in this Mishnah; “Torah without the ways of the world – a broad vision, livelihood, and a well-developed moral character – is sterile and in danger of not enduring.” Similarly, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm comments that “we must somehow combine sacredness and worldliness, our growth in the spiritual world of Judaism together with our engagement in the mundane, whether financial and economic, or academic and intellectual.” This ideal, writes Rabbi Lamm, stands at the core of what it means to be a Jew living in the modern world.


1.     Where there is no Torah, there is no derekh eretz; where there is no derekh eretz, there is no Torah. 


Most commentators assume derekh eretz here is referencing proper character traits. Meiri explains that the laws and values of the Torah influence and impact one’s ethical and moral behavior. He also recognizes an internal, natural predisposition guiding us to correct behavior. Though the latter is important, it will ultimately fall short of complete spiritual and moral perfection. Even the rules of the Torah, according to Meiri, do not suffice for complete moral development.  Torah provides laws and general moral guidelines that a person must apply to his or her life in a self-aware way, depending on context and individual differences. This is why a combination of Torah with derekh eretz is necessary.


2.     Where there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God; where there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom. 


Wisdom is a broad term that can have numerous interpretations, including knowledge of Torah (Chazon Ish), spiritual ability to fulfil the Divine Will (Rabbeinu Yonah), or a social intelligence   wisdom (Sforno). Regardless of definition, wisdom needs the supplemental value of fear of God. Internalizing that God knows, cares, and keeps account of our behaviors is essential to knowledge. As Rabbi Wein points out, “Wisdom and worldly knowledge, intellect and education, without being regulated by the Lord’s will and fear of Heaven, are dangerous and oftentimes destructive.” At the same time, fear of God requires wisdom and intellect, both for its development and for its application. An unwise utilization of fear of God can also have devastating consequences.  


3.     Where there is no understanding (da’at), there is no knowledge (bina); where there is no knowledge, there is no understanding. 


Similarly, commentators vary on their definition of “understanding” and “knowledge.” The main message seems to be that there are multiple forms of intelligent thought, and preferencing one at the expense of the other is counterproductive. Rabbeinu Yonah distinguishes between basic knowledge of an idea (da’at) and a deeper understanding (bina). Meiri differentiates between innate intellectual knowledge (da’at) and learned information through study (bina). Midrash Shmuel contrasts the content knowledge of Torah (da’at) and more analytical abilities of Torah (bina). Based on Hasidic teachings, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski connects this discussion of understanding and knowledge to the theme of morality as well: “da’at is the bridge that binds man’s intellect to his emotions, so that behavior is governed by the intellect.”


4.     Where there is no bread, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no bread. 


Living and learning Torah requires sustenance and support. It is difficult to serve God in abject poverty. Additionally, based on Maimonides four perfections from Guide for the Perplexed, Rabbi Yitzchak MiToledo writes that the Torah’s vision for moral and intellectual perfection requires physical health as a prerequisite. As the commentaries point out, there can literally be “bread” without Torah, as many people accomplish financial security without following the Torah. What Rabbi Elazar is teaching, writes Rabbeinu Yonah, is that there may be bread, but there is no deeper purpose inherent in such material success without the benefit of the Torah to frame and provide spiritual meaning for such possessions. 


In total, each clause of the Mishna could be understood as trying to strike the balance between Torah and other values such as character, wisdom, intelligence, and material goods. The Torah needs to be embedded in this world, and this world needs to be suffused with Torah. To close with the words of Rabbi Lamm, a master himself of blending Torah and worldly culture: “our approach to the world must be characterized by profound ambivalence, by a two-handedness. We must live in constant tension of being in the world, and yet out of it; related to it and above it; close to it and far away from it. We must be involved, and yet because we are also beyond and liberated from it, our purpose must be to elevate our worldly activities, to transform and dignify and ennoble and sanctify them.”


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