Acquiring Torah 18: Profit
Rabbi Akiva gave five instructions to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai when Rabbi Akiva was incarcerated in prison (See Berachot 61b): Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Master! Teach me Torah!” Rabbi Akiva said, “I will not teach you (to protect his student from being imprisoned).” Rabbi Shimon said, “If you do not teach me, I will tell Yochai, my father, and he will report you to the government (for more serious crimes than those for which you were imprisoned [Maharsha])!” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “My son! More than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wishes to suckle.” Rabbi Shimon said to him, “But who is in danger? Is it not the calf (the student) that is in danger?” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “1. If you want to get yourself choked, hang yourself from a tall tree. 2. And when you teach your son, teach him with a book that has been corrected from mistakes. 3. Do not cook in a pot in which your friend has cooked. 4. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and profit handsomely, he should eat the produce and will have capital. 5. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and have a pure body as well, he should marry a woman, and to him, children!” (Pesachim 112a-b)
“If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and profit handsomely, he should eat the produce; he should lend money to his colleague in need of funds on the basis of that colleagues pledged property. The lender will profit handsomely because, in lieu of repayment, he will eat, meaning, harvest the produce of the property, which will be worth far more money than the money loaned. And, he will have performed a Mitzvah because the borrower will have the capital he requires for business affairs.”
My usual problem: Did Rabbi Akiva, at risk of life, use his final moments and last instructions to the Jewish people and their leaders, to offer business advice?
I turn to a recollection, interpretation and application, of a concept I learned in the Chafetz Chaim’s Ahavat Chessed: The leaders of future generations, taught Rabbi Akiva, will have to teach observance as something that immediately benefits people who are otherwise suffering because of their observance and religion.
It is insufficient to speak of the World to Come and spiritual benefits, when people are being tortured for holding onto their Judaism. We cannot address a generation raised with immediate gratification with ethereal ideas, and other-worldly promises. We must ourselves learn how to teach Mitzvot in ways that offer practical benefits. We are commanded to lend money to someone in need, but Rabbi Akiva reminds Rabbi Shimon that we can fulfill the Mitzvah and benefit financially.
This is the lesson of Rabbi Akiva to us as parents and teachers; people who observe the Mitzvot and want to transmit their beauty to their children and students: Focus on the immediate gain of the Mitzvah. Search for its lessons and meaning. Find the practical wisdom in each Mitzvah. Present the Mitzvot as opportunities to grow and benefit; not as obligations.