June 3, 2020

Brachot 17

According to Brachot 17a, Rava who would often say: ‘The objective of [Torah] wisdom is [to foster a commitment to] teshuvah and [the performance of] good deeds. [He would also add that it would be an offence to Torah] were a person to read and study [Torah] yet spurn their father, or mother, or teacher, or anyone who may be greater than them…[and that this is clearly evident from the words of Tehillim] as it says: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord; a good understanding is achieved by all those who fulfill them” (Tehillim 111:10)’.

As someone who teaches in seminaries where students have, at times, chosen to undergo a spiritual growth spurt, the sentiment expressed by Rava is one that I often try and communicate to my students, and whatever a student chooses to adopt, I always emphasise the importance of calibrating personal choices with family harmony. In fact, among the advice I shared in an ‘Open Letter’ that I wrote some years ago to Yeshiva and Seminary students (1) preparing to return home, I stated that: ‘among the many things that R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky warned his students before they left for vacation was not to make a show of chumrot (stringencies) in halachah that they may have adopted, especially when in the presence of those who do no keep the same stringencies, lest they seem to imply criticism of those who do not keep these chumrot.’

But, as the Maharsha (on Brachot 17a) explains, Rava’s teaching has a further dimension. The Gemara (Yoma 86a) notes that someone who reads Torah, and learns Mishna, and serves Torah scholars, but whose business practices are not done faithfully, and who does not speak pleasantly with other people, what do people say about them? “Woe to so-and-so who studied Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who taught him Torah. So-and-so who studied Torah, see how destructive are their deeds, and how ugly are their ways.” Based on this, the Maharsha explains that if someone has learnt Torah but acts in an unethical or undignified manner, this too is a form of spurning their father, mother, or teacher, given what people may say about them and their parents and teachers.

Given this, I added the following in my ‘Open Letter’: ‘Having spent time studying Torah, you are an ambassador for Torah and for the institution where you have studied, and while you may not realise it, there will be young men or women in your neighbourhood looking at you and considering whether they, too, wish to study in Israel and at your particular institution. R’ Shmuel Kushelevitz, who served as Rosh Yeshiva in Torah Vodaath for many years, once told the story of two places – one a town, and one a city (2). Yet, despite their difference in size, 12 young men from the small town went to Yeshiva, while not a single student went to Yeshiva from the city. And why? Because, as R’ Kushelevitz explained, this was due to the events that took place in the previous year during ‘bein haz’manim’. At the time, one boy from the small town had been studying in Yeshiva, and when he came home for bein haz’manim he was a changed person. He spoke with respect to everyone and displayed middot tovot and derech eretz. He was always in shul early for davening, and he spent many hours in the Beit Midrash. Everybody realized that the boy had become a true ben Torah, and this encouraged others to send their sons to learn in Yeshiva. In the city, the very opposite occurred. A boy who had been studying in Yeshiva returned home for bein haz’manim, but his time was not spent in the Beit Midrash and his behavior and derech eretz left much to be desired. This discouraged his big-city neighbours from sending their sons away to yeshiva to learn. So when you are at home, consider how you are representing where you have been studying, and more broadly, Torah itself.’

Clearly this message is crucially important, and as one of the greatest Torah teachers this is probably why this was a מרגלא בפומיה – a teaching that Rava would regularly share. Today it is a message that we cannot afford to forget, and this is why I am sharing it here as well.

(1) https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/an-open-letter-to-yeshiva-and-seminary-students/

(2) See ‘Rav Pam on Pirkei Avos’ p. 163


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