Rabbi Yose said: Let the property of your fellow be as precious unto you as your own; make yourself fit to study Torah for it will not be yours by inheritance; and let all your actions be for the sake of Heaven (Avot 2:12).
When describing the traits of his five students in a previous mishna (Avot 2:8), Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai portrayed Rabbi Yose as a chassid – a pious person. How does one go about developing such a prized trait? The Talmud (Bava Kama 30a) quotes three opinions as to the best road to piety. According to R’ Yehuda, one should be careful regarding the laws of interpersonal damages (nezikin). Rava suggests that one should internalize the teachings in Pirkei Avot. Others recommend being diligent concerning reciting blessings.
Sefat Emet proposes that Rabbi Yose’s three statements in Pirkei Avot mirror these three paths delineated in the Talmud. “Let the property of your fellow be as precious unto you as your own” reflects being careful with interpersonal damages. “Make yourself fit to study Torah” encapsulates learning and adopting the messages in Avot. Finally, “Let all your actions be for the sake of Heaven” echoes the essence of reciting blessings.
The Maharal writes that the Sages in Avot generally encourage striving for perfection, which necessarily encompasses three distinct areas: between man and his fellow, between man and G-d, and between man and himself. Rabbi Yose’s three messages reflect this tripartite aspiration perfectly. “Let the property of your fellow be as precious unto you as your own” teaches how to improve relationships with others; “Make yourself fit to study Torah” helps towards self-perfection; and “Let all your actions be for the sake of Heaven” improves our relationship with G-d.
Yet despite these being three separate categories, the three are integrally interconnected so that each impacts the other. The better self-awareness we have, the better our relationship with others will be, and the stronger connection we will have to G-d. The more G-d permeates our lives, the healthier our relationships with others and the better our own lives will be. Finally, flourishing interpersonal relationships should enhance our own selves, and thereby facilitate a stronger bond with the Divine.
While there may be several ways to demonstrate this concept, we will explore this integrated dynamic by analyzing the three statements of Rabbi Yose through the prism of the psychological construct of grit. “We define grit,” Dr. Angela Duckworth wrote in her seminal 2007 article, “as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” Duckworth argues through her research that grit is an essential component of achievement and expertise and is a strong determinant of success. For instance, grittier individuals obtain higher grade-point averages and higher levels of educational attainment, and they perform better in scholastic competitions.
The starting point for grit is having one main, long-term goal. All second-level and subsidiary goals ultimately flow up into this superordinate goal. It is about this goal that a gritty person is most tenacious and passionate. Rabbi Yose’s closing advice, “And let all your actions be for the sake of Heaven,” seems like a good candidate for a religiously inspired superordinate goal. Our learning of Torah and our treatment of others will be infused with more meaning if we frame them as service to G-d. Rabbeinu Yonah extends this idea further, encouraging us to reframe all our daily activities which may not at first glance be associated with religious actions into being a spiritual pursuit. Eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, and other “mundane” activities can and should be done for the sake of deepening our service of G-d.
Having all our actions be for the sake of Heaven can also improve our grit by deepening our sense of purpose. Dr. Duckworth writes that grittier people are “dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other-centered life.” Crafting our experiences to reflect our core values provides a strong motivation to persist in our pursuits. If everything we do is infused with the motivation to serve G-d, that could generate the passion and perseverance necessary to succeed.
A deeper sense of purpose can also be developed through our interactions with other people. When our goals are self-centered, it is often hard to find deeper meaning. When our aims transcend ourselves and are targeted at helping others, our sense of purpose and subsequent grittiness is enhanced. This is intimated in Rabbi Yose’s first statement, “Let the property of your fellow be as precious unto you as your own.” As Rabbeinu Bachya explains, this reflects the core principle of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If our motivations and actions are infused with this value, we will be grittier in how we follow through with our goals related to helping others.
In his middle statement, Rabbi Yose exhorts us to prepare ourselves to learn Torah, for it is not an inheritance. Rashi comments that we shouldn’t say to ourselves that since our parents were incredibly intelligent, so too we will be the same without needing to put in any effort. Rather, learning Torah, regardless of any inherited intelligence factor, requires grit.
Besides putting in the time, energy, and dedication to actually study, how else do we go about preparing for learning Torah? Rabbeinu Yonah writes that we need to develop good character traits. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin suggests that before learning, we need to internalize the concept of fear of sin. More broadly, Rabbi Moshe Benyamin Raiz suggests that one needs to inculcate the 48 traits listed in the sixth chapter of Avot, known as the kinyanei Torah. In a particularly astute psychological suggestion, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz writes that a person needs to mentally resolve all impediments that get in the way of successful learning, such as worrying about finances, bodily ailments, intellectual challenges, or any other type of pain. When we sit down to learn, we need to be able to focus on the studies and not give in to these potential distractions.
A final possibility is to juxtapose this middle statement to the previous and subsequent statements. The way to prepare for Torah learning is by being careful about interpersonal relationships and internalizing the motivation to act for the sake of Heaven.
In all, if we want to be pious like Rabbi Yose, we need to grittily follow his advice and improve our relationships with other people, with ourselves, and with G-d. If these three pursuits are dynamically intertwined, we will have more success at our goals. Combining interpersonal compassion and kindness with commitment to intellectual and spiritual development, and infusing both with a Divine purpose, will generate a vibrant passion that can fuel continual growth and persistent piety.