By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Due to improprieties committed by the sons of Eli, a Kohein Gadol, Hashem proclaimed a curse on his descendants that they would die young. Unless some special exception was made, the descendants wouldn’t live past 20. The Talmud relates that two great sages, Abaye and Rabbah, descended from Eli. Rabbah lived until 40. Abaye lived until 60. The Gemara explains that Rabbah learned and taught Torah; therefore, 20 years were added to his life. Abaye performed acts of kindness as well as learning and teaching Torah; therefore, 40 years were added to his life (Yevamos 105a).
Rabbeinu Elchanan, cited in Tosfos, points out that this seems to contradict a passage in Sanhedrin (98b). The Gemara there says that Rabbah was afraid of the pain and travails that will herald the arrival of Mashiach. Abaye asked Rabbah, “Why are you afraid? Rebbe Eliezer says that one who wishes to be spared the pain that will precede Mashiach should busy himself in Torah and chesed. And you, Rebbe, have both!” Rabbah answered that he was afraid that perhaps sins he committed would make him susceptible to those pains.
Abaye felt that Rabbah performed enough kindness to be spared the suffering that will precede Mashiach. Rabbah likewise seemed to agree, except that he had a different issue. Yet here our Gemara implies that Rabbah didn’t perform acts of kindness. Rabbeinu Elchanan answers that surely a sage as great as Rabbah did perform acts of kindness. Yet he did not reach the level of kindness that Abaye reached. If he had performed more kindness, he too could have lived until the age of 60.
The Chofetz Chaim is somewhat perplexed by the above anecdote. The halachah is that if one is faced with two choices, gemiluschasadim or talmudTorah, the latter takes precedence. So why did Abaye forsake his Torah to perform acts of kindness? On the other hand, if one is faced with learning Torah or performing an act of kindness that cannot (or will not) be performed by others, the halachah in that situation is the chesed takes precedence. If Abaye only forsook his Torah for acts of kindness that could not be performed by others, then Rabbah should have done likewise.
The Chofetz Chaim’s answer is somewhat cryptic. The following explanation was offered in P’ninei Halachah. Abaye knew that he was a well-known and well-regarded Torah scholar. If he led an organization that provided interest-free loans or money for the poor, people would take notice. People would reason that if a gadol ha’dor like Abaye takes time off from his busy schedule to help the needy, we should do likewise.
Rabbah, however, felt that learning Torah takes precedence over leading such an organization. Rabbah reasoned that one may not forsake his Torah learning unless there is a concrete chesed need right now, not just some possible amorphous future gain.
The Chofetz Chaim says that the halachah follows Abaye. From the fact that Hashem granted Abaye an extra 20 years of life, we see his conduct was correct. Even for a gadolha’dor, leading a chesed organization takes precedence over Torah learning, if no one else can achieve the same results. Further, the fact that other people may in the future be inspired by the participation of a gadol to join in is a reason to become involved. Further, the Chofetz Chaim says we shouldn’t think that Abaye lost out on his Torah accomplishments because he took time to perform acts of kindness. That is precisely why Hashem gave him an extra 20 years! Although he spent much time on chesed, he still achieved the same level of scholarship that he would have attained had he dedicated himself exclusively to Torah study.
In regard to the halachah that learning Torah takes precedence over an act of kindness that can be done by others, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l, added a caveat. That is only true if one wants to do the chesed but is forced to follow the halachah that Torah takes precedence. However, if one did not really want to perform the kindness anyway, then he shouldn’t use this halachah as an excuse. He should stop learning and perform the act of kindness. This way he will engrain the trait of kindness into his being. The result will be that he will therefore reach even higher plateaus in Torah. There is a direct correlation between one’s character traits and the level of Torah scholarship one can achieve.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.