Rashi quotes a rabbinic source that says the verse means, “You shall toil in the study of Torah”. Evidently walking = toiling, but why? Walking uphill is toiling, but walking on the level surely isn’t.
Are we to understand that Torah study is a difficult uphill climb? How does this square with the verses in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 1:2) and elsewhere that speak of Torah being a delight one enjoys, not a challenge one must toil over?
An answer is suggested by the Chafetz Chayyim, who says on Proverbs 31:23, “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits with the elders of the land”, that “in the gates” means “in the World to Come”.
When a person reaches that world and the “elders” – the sages of the past – ask a person what Torah they have learnt, no-one would want to be found ignorant. So in order to face scrutiny in time to come, one has to work hard in this world to acquire Torah knowledge and to understand its meaning.
The Chafetz Chayyim adds an observation suggested by a rabbinic formula recited when one concludes a Talmudic tractate: “We toil and others toil: we toil and gain a reward, but they toil and gain no reward”. The “we” means people who study Torah: the others are those who do not study Torah.
True, we constantly see how prosperous these others become. Their toil often brings them immense dividends of financial success and status.
Says the Chafetz Chayyim: the difference is that with others, the toil is for the sake of the reward. With Torah scholars, the toil is the reward.
The Torah scholar does not say, “I study for the sake of riches, or power, or position, or fame… I study for the sake of study”.