Yesterday we compared and contrasted the donkey of R’ Pinchas ben Yair, which would not eat prohibited food, with the camels of Avraham Avinu. Today I want to directly address this strange phenomenon of a donkey which does not eat ma’achalos asuros – how does this work and what can we learn from it?
The gemara (B.M. 85) tells of a fight between R’ Chanina and R’ Chiya. R’ Chanina warned R’ Chiya that he is not one to be trifled with – “If all the Torah were forgotten, I could restore it with my pilpul.” R’ Chiya was not fazed and replied that he is not one to be trifled with either – “I would ensure that Torah is never forgotten. I would first raise flax, then use the flax to weave nets; I would use the nets to catch fish, then use the fish to attract and capture deer; I would then use the hide of the deer to write books and the flesh of the deer to feed poor orphans. I would take the books I have written and go to a town and teach five children each one of the five books of chumash and then have them teach each other, and I would teach six children each an order of Mishna and then have them review with each other, and in this way the Torah would never be forgotten from the Jewish people."
Why did Rav Chiya have to plant the flax to make the nets to catch the fish to get the deer to write the books? Why not just go buy hides or paper? The Maharasha explains that we see from this gemara the importance ofnot just doing good deeds, but ensuring that the means which are used to accomplish them are pure and proper. Who knows where the paper in the store came from or why it was produced? But if you make it yourself, you know it was made l’shem shamayim. Rav Ya’akov Moshe Lesin, the former mashgiach of YU and talmid of Slabodka, adds in his Maor sheBaTorah that this goal even warrants the sacrifice of Rav Chiya’s own learning to bring it about.
The Shomer Emunim (Derush haEmunah ch. 7) quotes from early sources that there is a concept of “koach hapoel b’nifal”. A craftsman, for example, who makes an object is not divorced from the object once it is complete – something of the craftsman’s character, effort, motivation, soul remains with the object and defines its character as well. Were I to simply quote the Shomer Emunim’s advice in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov not to read even Torah literature unless you know that the author is an upstanding individual because the identity of the author, the poel, can corrupt the book, the nifal, even if it contains only Torah thoughts, you might dismiss it as an overzealous stringency of chassidus. But the same sentiment is echoed by R’ Lesin, who writes in the name of R’ Chaim Volozhiner that a student who uses a sefer which happens to have been published by a non-G-d fearing individual will have less success in his learning. Why did davening and learning in the days of the gemara take place in a field? The GR”A suggests it is because the presence of impure motivation in building a study hall might corrupt the learning that is done later in that building.
While this idea may have you trembling a bit, there is a positive side as well. I am sure Rav Pinchas ben Yair rode his donkey for good reasons, l’shem mitzvah. And when you use something, even a donkey, chamor=chomriyus in general, for good reasons, it becomes invested with all the love and l’shem shamayim of its owner: koach hapoel b’nifal. Such a donkey is not one that can eat ma’achalos asuros. I don't think it is by accident either that Chazal highlight the donkey's behavior specifically with respect to its not eating food which did not have terumos and ma'sros taken off. What made the food in question prohibited is the mixture of that which we can eat with that which must be given to the kohen or levi. A donkey whose master does not tolerate a mixture of motives is a donkey which will not eat a mixed up jumble of issur and heter either.
And if you need a little more of a boost, remember that Hashem is “machadesh b’tuvo” all of creation every single day. Think of the koach ha’poel all of the world is invested with – if only we pay attention and tap into it.
The madreigos the Shomer Emunim is speaking of, or R’ Chaim Volozhiner is speaking of, are far above where most of us are holding. I don’t think anyone would suggest that you start making your own paper instead of buying a notebook, but we can still glean something from these ideals in terms of our behavior. I recently heard a Rosh Yeshiva thank the accountant who watched the yeshiva’s books for making sure that although they were trying to raise money for a building, everything was done on the up-and-up. This is R’ Chaiya’s principle in action. The Rosh Yeshiva could easily divorce himself from how the bricks and mortar get there and focus on the benefit of saying a shiur to a larger audience in a more spacious environment, but whether we sense it or not, somehow that shiur would be a different shiur.