We are taught a profound idea in today’s daf (Rosh Hashanah 18a) that Torah study, together with acts of kindness (gemilut chassadim), can help us foster merit from God, achieve atonement, and can bless us with longevity.
Significantly, this is not the only place in the Gemara where we are given a glimpse of the power of this dual force of Torah and acts of kindness, as we find in Sanhedrin 98b where, upon being asked ‘What must a person do to be spared the pangs of the Messiah?’, Rabbi Elazar responds, ‘Let them engage in Torah study and acts of loving-kindness’. In fact, as Rav Chaim Vital (in Sefer HaKedushah as quoted by the Chafetz Chaim in Ahavat Chessed Ch. 12) observes, each of us, at the end of each day, should evaluate whether we have spent time learning Torah and performing acts of kindness.
However, we do find something curious in today’s daf, because while Rava asserts that merit and atonement is achievable by Torah alone, Abaye argues that we need both Torah and acts of kindness – and to highlight this difference we are then told that Rabbah, who (seemingly) prioritized just Torah, lived for 40 years, while Abaye, who blended Torah and acts of kindness, lived for around 60 years. However, this leads us to ask a simple question: why did Rabbah not appreciate that Torah with acts of kindness is more spiritually impactful than Torah alone?
The short answer is that he did. In fact, immediately after Rabbi Elazar explains in Sanhedrin 98b that the way for someone to be spared the pangs of the Messiah is to engage in study and acts of loving-kindness, he then identifies Rabbah as being someone who personifies this fusion and who has ‘both [the merits of] Torah study and acts of kindness’. But if this is the case, why is Rabbah presented as an example of someone who only engaged in Torah study?
A fascinating answer to this question is suggested by the Netziv (Drashot No. 27) who explains, on the basis of Eruvin 68a, that while, in his younger years, Rabbah committed time to both Torah study and acts of kindness, once he was appointed as the Head of the Yeshiva in Pumbedita he was unable, or it was considered below his dignity, to engage with certain acts of kindness such as knocking on doors (as per the case in Eruvin 68a).
Perhaps it may have been understandable that, as a Head of Yeshiva, there were things Rabbah couldn’t make time to do or were below his dignity. However, as the Netziv then points out, the fact that much of Rabbah’s later years meant that his activities were primarily narrowed to Torah study and were less involved with acts of kindness was why, when he died, we are told (see Bava Metziah 86a) that the community eulogized him for just three days, and only after they were rebuked by heaven (based on the premise – as the Netziv explains – that, in his earlier years, Rabbah was involved in acts of kindness), did they eulogize him for longer. And why did the community only initially wish to eulogise Rabbah for three days? Because they saw his orbit as being limited to the world of Torah rather than being expressive of and involved in dual spheres of Torah and acts of kindness.
What we learn from here is that ‘torah alone’ is an incomplete service of God, that even the greatest of Torah scholars who do not engage in acts of kindness are considered to be lacking, and that each one of us, at the start of each day, should ask ourselves how we can make time for both learning Torah and performing acts of kindness.