“Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off from himself the yoke of the Torah, they place upon him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns” (Avot 3:5).
In his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes a powerful productivity framework which he calls the Time Management Matrix. According to Covey, we can spend our time in one of four ways: We can focus on activities that are urgent and important (Quadrant I), important but not urgent (Quadrant II), urgent but not important (Quadrant III), and not urgent and not important (Quadrant IV).
Spending too much time with matters that are not important or valuable (Quadrants III and IV), even if they feel urgent, will not yield great results. The biggest challenge, Covey argues, is to not get hijacked by matters that are urgent and important (Quadrant I), such as pressing problems, deadline-driven projects, and crises, to the point that we have no time left for activities that are important but not urgent (Quadrant II). This latter category generally includes projects or goals with high value and meaning, but since they aren’t urgent, they tend to get pushed off indefinitely, while our time is consumed with the urgent. Our goal should be to spend as much time in Quadrant II as possible. This obviously entails spending as little time as possible in Quadrants III and IV. While Quadrant I cannot be ignored, the more effective we are at proactively working on Quadrant II, we will experience fewer crises in Quadrant I.
In Avot 3:5, Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakkanah says, “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off from himself the yoke of the Torah, they place upon him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns.” Rabbi Nechunia is encouraging us to take on the “yoke” of Torah, and by so doing, other more mundane charges – such as mandatory work for the government (Rambam), paying taxes (Rav Yosef Nachmias), or working for a living (Meiri) – will be removed from our responsibilities. And the opposite is true if we don’t take on the yoke of Torah.
Commentaries are bothered by two main questions. First, what is the symbolism of Torah being referred to as a yoke? Second, what exactly is the mechanism behind what seems to be guaranteed removal of these other responsibilities?
In terms of why Torah is called a yoke, while learning Torah and living a life following Torah and mitzvot is often experienced as pleasurable, there is also an element of challenge and difficulty. According to the commentaries, Torah requires extreme mental energy and perseverance (Ri MiToledo), sacrifice of material comforts (Leiv Avot), prioritization and investment of time (Rabbeinu Yonah), and a certain amount of worry that we have not attained enough knowledge (Midrash Shmuel). More recently, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski writes:
The concept of a yolk is that just as the animal that plows under a yolk is doing the will of its master rather than seeking its own pleasure, so must one consider one’s mission on earth as fulfilling the Divine will rather than seeking gratification of one’s desires. Furthermore, just as the animal under a yolk does not deviate to the left or the right from the course it must follow, so must a person adhere to the prescribed course and not be distracted by anything else. Self-centered desires have no place when one is under a yolk.
In a more positive framing of the metaphor, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm writes that what “we too often forget is that a yolk is that which will direct us to the greener pastures of the spirit, and allows us to carry along with us, during our long journey through life, highly precious baggage: a life filled with meaning, with purpose, with transcendent value.”
Addressing the second question, as to how exactly the yokes of government and worldly concerns are removed from the person who chooses the yoke of Torah, Rambam writes that it is a reward from G-d because of the sacrifice he made for the sake of Torah. Similarly, Rabbeinu Yonah writes that G-d “does not put it into the heart of the king – that takes people to do his work – to take this one. And he is saved from the work of the kings to fulfill his will to be involved [in Torah].” In a slightly different formulation, Meiri writes that he won’t have to deal with worldly matters because his friends, neighbors, and relatives will help him with his responsibilities so that he doesn’t have to stop learning.
Other commentaries, instead of focusing on Divine Providence or communal help, provide a more psychological explanation. Rabbi Yosef Nachmias writes that because the person is learning, his mindset will shift so that he will be happier with his allotted portion, even if it is smaller. More recently, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka writes that for this person “the Torah becomes primary; everything else is secondary and thus, recedes into insignificance.” Fulfilling the responsibilities of the Torah become his “primary preoccupation in life, such that everything else is subordinated to this pursuit. It thus makes eminent sense that such an individual will have removed from the self the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly occupation. These simply will pale into insignificance relative to the primary pursuit of Torah.” According to Rabbi Dr. Bulka’s reading, it is not G-d or others who remove the yoke, but the person him or herself, by making Torah primary.
Perhaps the most powerful psychological formulation is found in the writings of the Chasidic masters. Pointing to the fact that even some of the greatest sages worked for a livelihood, the Kotzker Rebbe assumes that the guaranteed removal of the yoke of worldly occupation can’t mean not having to work for a living. As explained by Rabbi Yosef Stern in his Pirkei Avos With Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes and other Chassidic Masters, “Their parnassah never became an obsession. Having accepted upon themselves the [yoke of Torah], that all-embracing commitment to Torah, nothing else – even the need to earn a livelihood – could approach that commitment.” In a similar approach, the Sfat Emet, also elaborated on by Rabbi Stern, explains that there is still a necessity to work and to deal responsibly with the government, but what the mishna is saying is that when one commits to Torah, “the ol, the sense of overriding commitment that these common situations possess, is greatly mitigated.”
Framed through this psychological perspective, Rabbi Nechunia’s message overlaps with one of the main points of Covey’s Time Management Matrix. The yoke of government and worldly matters fit into Quadrant I – they are both urgent and important. They need to be dealt with and they can take up a substantive amount of time and mental energy. Torah fits into Quadrant II. It is important, but often not experienced as urgent. We are in danger of spending all of our time in Quadrant I, leaving no time for Torah. What Rabbi Nechunia is teaching is that if we prioritize Torah in Quadrant II, the drama and urgencies of Quadrant I will decrease to manageable portions.
One of the strategies Covey suggests in order to increase time in Quadrant II is through “Focus.” The best way to build that focus is to “organize your life on a weekly basis.” As a paradigmatic example, he points to the concept of the Sabbath, which is the “one day out of every seven set aside for uplifting purposes.” The Sfat Emet, whom we quoted above, writes that Rabbi Nechunia’s message has its most potent effects when we learn on Shabbat. Rabbi Stern expounds on the Sfat Emet, writing that “by committing ourselves to learn Torah on Shabbos we are shielded from the ‘yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities’ all week long. Of course, the need to relate to the secular rulers remains. Likewise, the need to earn a parnassah still exists. However, by immersing ourselves in Torah every Shabbos we feel a palpable sense of relief during the week that follows.”
Following the psychological approach to the mishna, even in situations where we have other urgent and important responsibilities, to the extent that we prioritize our commitment to the yoke of Torah, with its ability to guide us to, as Rabbi Dr. Lamm writes, a “life filled with meaning, with purpose, with transcendent value,” the challenges and burdens of other obligations will be mitigated through our spiritual connection to a higher calling.