A Yoke-Filled Diet

Lately we’ve been hung up on a few things–most notably, perhaps, my attempt at reconciling tradition with my personal evolution. The “fear” of the Lord. Sharing words of Torah. All this, all that. Et cetera. I hate the idea that I must “reconcile” anything–saying it like that implies there’s some inherent disconnect that needs to be overcome. If this is what my faith has become, can it still be called faith?

Matters of philosophical importance aside, this week’s teaching sent me straight to the footnotes.

3.6 Rabbi Nehunia ben Ha-Kanah taught:

Whoever accepts the yoke of Torah will be spared the burdens of citizenship and of earning a livelihood; but whoever throws off the yoke of Torah will have to bear the burdens of citizenship and of earning a livelihood.

Citizenship? Livelihood? Precisely why I attacked those footnotes like a rabid dog. Apparently, for the former, the exact translation is literally “the yoke of the Kingdom”; the second, derech eretz, is a Rabbinic metaphor used to mean “a worldly occupation,” but literally means “the way of the land” and, when I taught religious school, referred to the classroom rules the children–and teachers–had to follow.

Let’s break this down into a few questions we can address in turn: What is the yoke of the Torah? What is the yoke of the kingdom? How does taking up the yoke of the Torah free one from the kingdom’s yoke and worldly occupations? And what does it mean to suffer them by throwing off the Torah?

First, I’ve always considered “yoke” a negative term that evokes images of harnessed animals forced into laborious farm work on the one hand or a verb implying forcing another into a state of servitude. However, not only is the latter meaning obsolete, the former’s a misinterpretation of the actual object: The yoke itself can be a singular harness, but more commonly it refers to a harness that connects two oxen and allows them to work together without either drifting too far apart or walking so closely they can no longer act appropriately. This is a completely different meaning than I’ve always envisioned upon hearing the word “yoke”–and it’s not nearly as negative as I thought.

If a yoke connects two oxen to enable them to work together, what would the yoke of the Torah be? Since we’re working with nouns and not verbs, we can assume that this “yoke of the Torah” connects two objects–two beings, if you will–to enable them to work side-by-side. Since the teaching says “Whoever,” we can deduce that half of this pair is human–and if only half the pair is human, it follows that the other half is God: The yoke of the Torah is a connection between us and God that enables us to work side-by-side. This isn’t oppressive at all; if you think about it, it’s no different than a parent holding their hand on their child’s shoulder or a teacher holding office hours for their students. These are bonds we cherish and savor, so why wouldn’t we accept the yoke of the Torah as eagerly as these?

Obviously, however, a yoke carries a hoard of restrictions to those who carry it: You are not only harnessed, but there are boundaries within which you cannot leave. Logic would remind us these boundaries exist on both parties, but if one side holds humanity and the other side holds God, can we really believe unequivocally that God’s limitations are the same as ours? If we follow the Torah–essentially now a contract by this analogy–isn’t God bound to follow it as closely as we do? Furthermore, yokes limit the distance that can be gained or lost between two parties. If we want to grow closer to God, wouldn’t a yoke keep up from doing this?

These are theological questions that bear no answers–and honestly, how could they?–and I fear lingering too long here may keep us from reaching the crux of this teaching, or at least one possible crux of it.

When I read the “yoke of the Kingdom” and a “worldly occupation,” it reminded me of the novel As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. I read it last summer and it was a terrific read. It’s set in the early Rabbinic era and follows a man named Elisha as he grows closer to the Torah–and then throws it all away in a fit of doubt that leads him on an endless quest to find ultimate truth in the universe. In a way his journey reflects something of mine at the moment–there is so much questioning to do, but not a lot of answering to be had.

Regardless, what made me remember this is that, in the story, it suggested that scholars, though often poor, were taken care of by their communities–and those that gained riches were able to take care of themselves. They didn’t need to be worried about taxes and careers because their needs were met in other manners. This, obviously, does not stand today, so how can we adapt “the yoke of the Kingdom” to today’s world when no amount of scholarship–even if it’s scholarship devoted to the Torah–can free us from these civil bonds?

I’m not sure. I don’t know. What else can I say?

Last week I was reveling in the foresight the Rabbis had in some of their teachings, but in others, there was no way for them to know how the scope of politics and civil life would change. In their day, perhaps studying Torah would allow someone to focus less upon the tangible demands of being a part of a larger society, but in today’s world, that’s just not possible. Even if I became a Rabbinic scholar, I’d still have to pay taxes, I’d still have to follow the laws of the United States, and I’d still have to make ends meet.

But if I believe these words are not a trifling thing, and I do believe that, then there must be something more to this. In some metaphysical, metaphorical sense, closeness to the Torah must amount to something.

If we return to the thought of this yoke of Torah being a connector that fastens each of us to God, how might this spare us the burdens of citizenship and earning a livelihood? I think it refers on one hand to integrity and on the other hand to faith itself.

Let’s look at faith first since it’s the easier argument to build: Faith–no matter what that faith is–can become an internal system of support. In troubled times, prayer and an understanding that God’s will, if unseen, is present can offer a great amount of comfort–and from this comfort, we can derive strength with which to proceed strongly, firmly, and upright. In good times, faith fortifies our happiness, gives us some entity to direct our gratitude towards, and allows us an opportunity to become even more proficient in the habits and convictions that led us to such good times, and this will prepare us further for those less-than-good times, too. Therefore, in an emotional and mental way, this yoke of Torah does spare us from some of the burdens that the demands of citizenship and earning a livelihood subject us to.

When we recognize that the Torah is essentially a law code instructing righteous behavior, the argument for integrity becomes easier to make. However, before we proceed, a definition of “integrity” is needed: Integrity is a measure of how closely you observe your own morals and code of ethics. If I believe timeliness is a virtue and I make it a point to always be on time, that shows integrity. However, if I believe lying is lowly, but I lie nonetheless, that is a reflection of poor integrity. With this definition, integrity becomes the opposite of hypocrisy. The root of the word, so I’ve now read, is the same root as the mathematical word “integer”–and just as an integer has a whole value, those who have integrity are considered “whole”–their actions are at one with their beliefs and they remain consistent with their actions and their beliefs over time.

Moving back to the Torah, if we accept its yoke, we are making a claim about our morals and our ethics. By observing the commandments and by living a righteous life as outlined therein, we are establishing our own integrity. With a reputation of great integrity, we earn the respect that allows us to advance our place in life; but more importantly, with a strong internal reckoning of integrity, we will learn to avoid those situations and occupations that compromise the foundation of our being. When we no longer have to deal with compromising situations on a day-to-day basis, acting upon our citizenship and earning a livelihood are no longer laborious endeavors. With the yoke of Torah to guide us, we have built a life that fulfills us.

Of course, if you gain your morals and ethics from a source other than the Torah, the same argument can be applied to you with precisely the same conclusion. This does beg the question, however, if any set of morals and ethics will do, what makes the Torah so special? And in conjunction with this, what happens if your morals are aligned with what the Torah instructs but you don’t believe in the Torah at all? Can this conflict between belief and action be considered a loss of faith or merely the lack of a need for faith?

I’m afraid I’ve once more ventured into the realms of philosophy and theology–two areas where my proficiency in mathematics and creative writing cannot help me. Perhaps this leaves this lesson too open to conclude, or perhaps the point of this lesson has simply been acknowledging how taking upon a “yoke of the Torah” can aid us in our daily lives, or perhaps there is something deeper here that I haven’t been able to touch at. In the end, however, what remains but more questions and fewer answers than ever?


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