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Mishlei Chapter Four: Judgment Calls

“Let your heart hold on to my words, keep my commands and live (Proverbs 4:4).” Our Rabbis taught: The poor, the rich, the sinner come before the heavenly court — They say to the poor: Why have you not occupied yourself with the Torah? If he says: I was poor and worried about my sustenance, they would say to him: Were you poorer than Hillel?


It was reported about Hillel the Elder that every day he used to work and earn one tropaik, half of which he would give to the guard at the House of Learning, the other half being spent for his food and for that of his family.

One day he found nothing to earn and the guard at the House of Learning would not permit him to enter. He climbed up and sat upon the window,10 to hear the words of the living God from the mouth of Shemayah and Abtalion — They say, that day was the eve of Sabbath in the winter solstice and snow fell down upon him from heaven. When the dawn rose, Shemayah said to Abtalion: “Brother Abtalion, on every day this house is light and today it is dark, is it perhaps a cloudy day.”

They looked up and saw the figure of a man in the window. They went up and found him covered by three cubits of snow. They removed him, bathed and anointed him and placed him opposite the fire and they said: “This man deserves that the Sabbath be profaned on his behalf.”

To the rich man they said: Why have you not occupied yourself with the Torah? If he said: I was rich and occupied with my possessions, they would say to him: Were you perchance richer than R. Eleazar?

It was reported about R. Eleazar b. Harsom that his father left him a thousand cities on the continent and over against that one thousand boats on the sea. Every day he would take a sack of flour on his shoulder and go from city to city and from province to province to study the Torah.

One day his servants found him and seized him for public service. He said to them: “I beg of you, let me go to study the Torah.” They said: “By the life of R. Eleazar b. Harsom, we shall not let you go.”

He gave them much money so that they let him go.

He had never seen them, for he was sitting all day and night, occupying himself with the Torah.

To the sinner they would say: Why have you not occupied yourself with the Torah? If he said: I was beautiful and upset by sensual passion, they would say to him: Were you perchance more beautiful than Joseph?

It was told of Joseph the virtuous that the wife of Potiphar every day endeavored to entice him with words — The garments she put on for him in the morning, she did not wear in the evening, those she had put on in the evening, she did not wear in the morning.

She said to him: “Yield to me!” He said: “No.”

She said: “I shall have you imprisoned.” He said: “The Lord releases the bound.”

She said: “I shall bend your proud stature.He replied: “The Lord raises those who are bowed down.

She said: “I shall blind your eyes.” He replied: “The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.She offered him a thousand talents of silver to make him yield to her, to lie with her, to be near her, but he would not listen to her; not to ‘lie with

her’ in this world, not ‘to be with her’ in the world to come.

Thus [the example of] Hillel condemns the poor, [the example of] R. Eleazar b. Harsom condemns the rich, and Joseph the virtuous condemns the sinner. (Yomah 35b)

Is the rich man serious when he justifies his lack of Torah study by saying, “I was rich and occupied with my possessions”? Does he not understand that if he was wealthy he did not need to spend so much time on his money; he should have used his wealth as an opportunity to spend more time in Torah study.

Is the poor man serious when he justifies his lack of Torah study by saying, “I was poor and worried about my sustenance”? If he didn’t have many possessions or a lot of business, why did he not have more time for Torah study?

It is most difficult to understand the sinner’s response when questioned why he did not study more Torah, “I was beautiful and upset by sensual passion.” First of all, the verse says, “But to the wicked, the Lord said, ‘What does it avail you to recount my statutes’ (Psalms 50:16),” from which we learn that God does not desire the Torah study of the wicked. Plus, the Talmud (Succah 52b) teaches that one who is struggling with his Evil Inclination is the one who would most benefit from a visit to the study hall.

Each one of these characters, the wealthy man, the poor man, and the sender, desire to be free of their obligation to study Torah by virtue of the concept, “One who is occupied in performing a mitzvah is free from performing another mitzvah.”

The wealthy man claims that wealth demanded things other than Torah study, such as. he’s making more money so that he can support those who are studying Torah. He was so busy making money to fulfill his obligation as a wealthy man, that he had no time to study Torah.

The poor man claims that all his efforts to feed his children is equal to the mitzvah of Torah study, as the Talmud (Ketubot 50a) teaches, one who feeds is children and family when they are small is considered one who, “Performs tzedakah at all times (Psalms 106).” The poor man is occupied in kindness, and what is Torah if not for the Torah of kindness?

This sinner claims that since he has such a powerful and intense Evil Inclination, his battle is considered Torah study (Shelah Hakodesh; Masechet Shavuot).

The Shelah haKodesh is taking the arguments of these three to ridiculous extents to teach us how far we go when attempting to justify ourselves.

King Solomon is recalling King David’s words to him, who would struggle with his wealth, accumulating too much as a Jewish king, and his Evil Inclination, marrying a thousand women. King Solomon was confident that his great wisdom would protect him. As we know, he failed. The wisdom of the wisest of all men was insufficient to protect him. He needed to rely less on his own wisdom, Van on the wisdom of the Torah. It is only the one who lives by this verse, “Let your heart hold on to my words, keep my commands and live,” who holds on to the words of Torah, who will be able to keep God’s commandments and live as he should.

Torah demands constant judgment calls. There is a fine line between making a judgment call based on Torah and making a judgment call based on our own wisdom. King Solomon is reminding us to carefully examine each judgment call and be certain that the judgment is the Torah’s judgment, not our own limited wisdom.

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