In Parashat VaYechi, Ya’akov Avinu delivers his final address to his sons, in which he blesses (or chides) each of them individually. Most of the blessings contain simple messages, although cloaked in poetic terminology. Yissachar’s blessing, however, requires a closer look.
BeReishit (49:15) states, “VaYar Menucha Ki Tov Ve’Et Ha’Aretz Ki Na’eimah VaYeit Shichmo Lisbol VaYehi LeMas Oveid”, “And he saw rest, that it was good, and that the land was pleasant; and he tilted his shoulder to work and became a working serf.” There is a seeming contradiction between the start of the Pasuk and its ending: the former describes Yissachar as restful, the latter as industrious. How do these two qualities co-exist?
There is another episode of Sheivet-based blessings recorded in the Torah that can help provide clarity. At the end of his life, Moshe Rabbeinu addresses Bnei Yisrael in a fashion similar to Ya’akov, and he says the following (Devarim 33:18): “Semach Zevulun BeTzeitecha Ve’Yissachar Be’Ohalecha”, “Rejoice, O Zevulun, in your exit, and Yissachar in your tents.” The imagery of the tent is associated with Torah study. For example, Ya’akov is described as a “Yosheiv Ohalim”, “dweller of tents”, which Rashi (ibid. s.v. Yosheiv Ohalim) and the Targum Yerushalmi both understand to refer to the Beit Midrash.
The Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 99:9) thus explains that Zevulun would engage in trade on the Mediterranean coast, while Yissachar would learn Torah; the material and spiritual profits would then be shared. It adduces the Pesukim in Devarim and BeReishit as proof. Indeed, the Midrash elsewhere (BeReishit Rabbah 98:12) interprets the ‘good rest’ and ‘pleasant land’ of Yissachar’s blessing to be references to the Torah, and his ‘work’ to be that of the Sanhedrin. Further support for this interpretation is brought from Divrei HaYamim Aleph 12:33, which states, “UMiBnei Yissachar Yode’ei Chochma La’Itim… Rosheihem Matayim”, “And from the children of Yissachar were those who knew wisdom for the ages… their heads were two hundred”.
Returning to our original question, the dual nature of Yissachar’s work can now be explained by his Sheivet’s focus on Torah study. From a physical perspective, Torah is “Menuchah”; learning does not require much manual labor, nor exertion of the body. But from a spiritual, psychological, and mental perspective, learning Torah is difficult labor. The only true way to achieve success in Torah study is by putting in the effort and the hours; as Winston Churchill once said in a different context, it requires blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
This is what Reish Lakish meant by his celebrated maxim (Berachot 63b), “Minayin She’Ein Divrei Torah Mitkaymin Ela BeMi SheMeimit Atzmo Aleha SheNe’emar Zot HaTorah Adam Ki Yamut Ba’Ohel”, “From where do we learn that the words of Torah only stay with one who kills himself over it? As it is said (BeMidbar 19:4), ‘This is the Torah-- when a man dies in the tent’”. Whenever we find ourselves, like our ancestor Yissachar, ‘dying in the tent’ of Torah, we can take heart in the knowledge that the struggle, the trial-and-error, the immense effort expended on a single line-- all of these are the truest forms of Limmud HaTorah.