By Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky
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The Mishnah in Avot states:
R. Shimon says: “One who is walking on the way and learning, and interrupts his learning and says: ‘How becoming is this tree, How becoming is this field’; the Torah considers it as if he has forfeited his life”.
This Mishnah is puzzling for a number of reasons. First, virtually everyone who learns this Mishnah is troubled by its basic message. Secondly, where is there such a biblical text? Thirdly, does it really make sense that someone would interrupt their learning to comment on the beauty of a barren field?
A few points of clarification: First: The opening phrase, “one who was walking on the path and was learning”, echoes the Torah’s mandate [Devarim (6:7; 11:19)] that we be involved with the words of Torah when we are walking on the way. Secondly: We make statements in numerous ways, not only verbal! Thirdly, the expression ‘How becoming is this tree, How becoming is this field’ can express an equation of sorts; this is as becoming as this. One final point needs to be considered. What is the difference between a tree and a fallow field? The answer is clear. A field that is not currently planted has no identity. By contrast, a tree has a distinct identity, even when barren.
Life is divided between destinations and journeys. There are activities that are of innate value, and those that we engage in in order to allow for some other goal. The former are the destinations of life, while the latter are the travels of life.
We need to be bnei and bnot torah at all times, whether we are learning and praying or working and playing. We need to be as immersed in Torah in the marketplace as in the Bet Midrash. All of our activities need to be part of our Talmud Torah in the broader sense. Being “on the way”, therefore, ought not to constitute an interruption in one’s learning. If it does constitute an interruption, then it is a failure in being a true ben/ bat torah.
In the context of the analogy of fields and trees, “on the way” means when they are not bearing produce. At such a time, there is a fundamental difference between a field and a tree. For the tree, there is a natural connection between the period of barrenness and of bearing fruit. The apple tree, with or without apples, is an apple tree. The same is not true of a field.
For this reason, we need to understand that the proper model for us is that of the tree, not the barren field. One who is “on the way”, and interrupts his learning (that is his behavior and activities are not in concert with his learning) is making a statement. The statement is that he fails to see the superiority of the tree to the barren field.
This then is the meaning of the Mishnah. By interrupting his learning when he is “on the way”, he is stating that the barren field is as worthy as the un-laden tree!
We can now understand why it is that the Mishnah says that such a person forfeits his life. If we follow the first two chapters of the shemah, we will see that the Torah teaches that we need to have our “on the way” be part of our Talmud Torah. The conclusion of this mandate is the idea that we will thereby attain long life [Devarim (11:21)]. It is therefore clear that the Torah is telling us that one who fails to live up to this, but rather interrupts his learning, forfeits his life.
Let us consider for a moment one aspect of this idea. In life, we spend much of our time doing things that are a means to an end. We go to school in order to get a job, in order to make money, so that we can etc. etc. etc. If these “on the way” activities are disconnected from any ultimate value, if they are done purely as a means to an end, then there is very little time that we spend on anything truly worthwhile. Our real lives are then exceedingly short. On the other hand, if these activities are all part of our Torah, if they are done in such a way that they are valuable and meaningful, then they too are part of our true lives. As such, we have far longer lives! If, God forbid, we fail to do so, we have forfeited many, many years of life!