It is incredibly important to have regular times for learning Torah. This is one of the key precepts brought in Pirkei Avos. In another section of Pirkei Avos it is said in the name of Raban Gamliel “Beautiful is studying Torah with derech eretz, for laboring in both of them leads to forgetting iniquity. All Torah that is unaccompanied with labor is nullified and leads to sin.” Derech eretz is often understood to mean career, however it also carries connotations such as proper etiquette, and in many places in Shas and Zohar the phrase refers to marital intimacy. We see that in our generation there are many who learn as their primary occupation, aren’t they going against what Chazal say here, as well as the shtikl gemoro in Maseches Brochos that those who followed R’ Shimon’s path – consisting of only learning Torah and not working – failed in this?
The reality is that the argument one could make, saying that many Yidden are going against the words of Chazal, does initially sound quite reasonable. However what we need to understand is that there are different levels of learning and avodas Hashem.
It says in Pirkei Avos that one who accepts the Ohl Malchus Shomayim (Yoke of Heavenly Kingdom) upon themselves becomes free from derech eretz, literally meaning the way of the land. We can understand this through the lens of the Ramban, who says quite clearly that there is no such thing as nature, hence derech eretz is only an illusory concept in the first place. Therefore one who accepts Hashem’s sovereignty upon themselves should be able to perceive on some level the constant miracles that Hashem does always. This level of Kabbolas Ohl Malchus is an aspect of receiving Binah, the Feminine Mind in the Higher worlds, since Malchus is only a reflection of Binah. Binah is also the place of t’shuva, and is in the first three sefiros, hence beyond the influence of time. When a Yid fully accepts Ohl Malchus Shomayim through saying K’rias Shma shel Shachris with complete kavana, in tallis and/or tefillin, that Yid taps into the higher sefiros, which leads to greater perception of Hashem’s wonders. This perception is the higher form of Yiras Hashem, Awe of God, or literally Seeing of Hashem. Though Hashem cannot be literally seen we can observe the beauty of His Creation, which is not separate from Him, as well as notice more events in our daily lives that clearly have the “Divine Hand” guiding them.
At the end of hilchos Shmitah in Mishneh Torah, the Rambam says that every Yid who separates themselves from corporeal concerns and becomes completely invested in Torah and serving Hashem receives all the brochos (blessings) that the Levi’im are blessed with. So now we can ask, is the Rambam, encouraging people to take on the modern Kollel lifestyle, when he himself worked? Ultimately, yes. However following the path of Toras HaChassidus, our every action must be holy and devoted to avodas Hashem. So even when having to work or be involved in the things of this world, so long as we focus on Hashem the whole time to fulfill the mitzvah to cleave to Hashem as explained by Ramban, Rashbam, and other Rishonim, then our actions will be holy.
Ultimately, this is the difference between one who sits and learns all day and doesn’t come to sin, and those who do unfortunately err. P’shat on the Gemoro about R’ Shimon and his path is that his talmidim failed because they weren’t sincere enough; it was easier for them to be sincere following R’ Yishmoel and working part of the time and learning the leftover time. The most important thing is the focus and intent of the learning; learning full time with any intent beyond serving Hashem and studying the Torah is improper and will ultimately lead to failure. We have to ask for lots of help from Hashem that we should be able to learn with proper focus and have our entire focus in serving Him and studying His Torah to be for Him alone. Once this process is begun and one slowly attains this level, then the Torah learned serves to purify the soul and air around you, along with sweetening all the harsh judgments and breaking klippos, like we know from R’ Nachman and many other Admorim.