“Rebbi Meir said: Whoever occupies himself with the Torah for its own sake merits many things;
not only that, but [the creation of] the whole world is worthwhile just for him…
And it magnifies him and exalts him over everything.” (Avot 6:1)
“Whoever regularly occupies himself with the study of Torah is surely exalted.” (6:2)
“Great is Torah for it grants life to those that practice it, in this world, and in the world to come.” (6:7)
Tractate Avot originally consisted of five chapters. To accommodate the study of Pirkei Avot on the sixth Shabbat between Pesach and Shavuot, a sixth chapter was added to the Tractate. As that Shabbat (generally) falls out right before Shavuot, the sixth chapter helps us prepare for the chag by focusing on Torah learning. This perek is called Kinyan Torah because it refers to two aspects of Torah acquisition: how we acquire Torah, and the great value(s) we acquire along with it.
Torah learning benefits the learner in both this world and beyond. The seventh Mishnah formulates the point this way: “Torah is great, for it grants life in this world and the next.”
The Next World
Considering Torah learning’s status as a central mitzvah, we easily understand how it earns one life in the next world. The tenth Mishnah tells of Rebbi Yosi Ben Kisma’s rejection of a substantial monetary offer aimed at convincing him to move to a city lacking a strong Torah presence. Rebbi Yosi explained his refusal with the fact that it is only (the reward for) Torah learning and good deeds (and not gold and silver) that we take with us to the next world. Many things seem valuable in this world. When choosing how to live our lives, we should focus on what has eternal value.
The Mishnah’s assertion that Torah learning grants life in this world as well is a greater chiddush. Rebbi Akiva reinforced this point in his response to those who questioned his teaching of Torah despite the Roman prohibition against doing so. Rebbi Akiva compared a Jew’s need for Torah learning to a fish’s dependency on water (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 61b). Torah is not just an enhancer of life; it is a condition for it. Though many people physically survive without learning Torah, their lives lack true meaning.
Beyond meaningful life itself, the first Mishnah lists many additional benefits earned through Torah learning. Before listing these benefits, Rebbe Meir emphasizes that a person learning Torah also makes the existence of the entire world worthwhile.
Avot began with Shimon HaTzaddik’s assertion that the world exists for the purpose of Torah learning (as well as avodah and gemilut chasadim). Rebbe Meir takes this notion a significant step further by portraying even a single person’s Torah learning as making the whole world worthwhile!
The Greatest and Highest Life
The first Mishnah in our perek concludes its list of benefits by declaring that Torah learning makes one “greater” and “higher” than all creations (note that this Mishnah presents the elevation in relation to the rest of creation, while the second Mishnah describes the elevation as related to the person learning). Torah learning is “great” not just because it grants life (Mishnah seven), but also because it makes those who learn it “greater.”
The Gemara in Megilla (16b) further develops the “greater” aspect of Torah learning by asserting that it is “greater” than kibud av v’eim, building the Beit HaMikdash, and even saving a life. Though saving a life takes priority over Torah learning, the act of learning is of greater value because it helps people become greater.
As we saw, Mishnah Aleph describes Torah as raising the student above other creations. Mishnah Bet adds a second aspect by explaining that Torah learning elevates people (not just relative to other creatures, but also) to a higher (in fact the highest) version of themselves.
This second dimension is the backdrop to the way Rav Yosef reflected on his Torah learning. The Gemara (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 68b; Rashi) tells us that when asked about his custom to celebrate Shavuot by eating a special meat sandwich, Rav Yosef explained that without Torah learning, he would have amounted to no more than ‘the average Joe (Yosef).’
Rashi’s formulation of Rav Yosef’s words (“if not for the days I learned Torah and elevated myself…”) links it to our Mishnah’s focus on Torah as elevating. Though the mitzvot and good deeds we perform earn us reward, only Torah learning develops us in a way that elevates and distinguishes us.
To summarize, Avot’s sixth perek emphasizes the great significance of Torah learning, which grants life in both this world and the next and also helps one achieve greatness and reach the highest level of his potential.
May these mishnayot prepare us for Shavuot by helping us appreciate and properly celebrate Matan Torah and by inspiring us to maximize future Torah learning opportunities.