January 6, 2022

Megillah 17

Today’s daf (Megillah 17a) contains many fascinating and profound teachings. But since the daf opens with a teaching – echoed in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68:11) – whose core concept and educational implications has been something that I’ve been speaking about for many years ever since I first encountered a truly remarkable interpretation on this subject, I feel compelled to share these thoughts with you as they continue to be essential for our time.
Having previously discussed, at the end of Megillah 16b, that Ezra remained behind in Bavel to learn Torah from the elderly Baruch ben Neriah while others travelled to Israel to begin the process of rebuilding the second Beit HaMikdash, the Gemara then makes reference to Yaakov who, aged 63 and mid-way through his journey from his parents’ home to the home of Lavan, spends 14 years (as calculated in our daf) studying in the Yeshiva of Ever (the great-great grandson of Noach) which was originally founded by his great grandfather Shem (the son of Noach).
This teaching is considered to be well known – primarily as it was incorporated by Rashi in his commentary to Bereishit 28:11, and while most people presume that it teaches us that Yaakov needed to study more ‘Torah’ (nb. as the Torah was yet to be given, it is understood by many to refer to the moral teachings stemming from the belief in One God) before entering the environs of his deceptive uncle Lavan, little more attention is given to this subject. Yet it is in a series of explanations of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, as found in his ‘Emet L’Yaakov’ commentary on the Torah, where the profound implications of this teaching are revealed.
Rabbi Kamenetsky begins with a seemingly simple question: Given that Yaakov’s grandfather Avraham was alive up until Yaakov reached the age of 15, and given that Yaakov spent many years up to this point learning with his father Yitzchak, why was it so urgent for him to interrupt his journey to spend time studying in the Yeshiva of Ever?
To answer this question, it is first important to distinguish between the life experience of Avraham, and that of his mother Rivka and his father Yitzchak, and more broadly, between two types of ‘Torah’ which we might wish to choose to call ‘Torah of the Beit Midrash’ and ‘Torah for the Street’, (nb. while the overall thesis that I now present is drawn from Rabbi Kamenetsky, some is based on what he explains, and some from how I have processed this insight).
In terms of Avraham, he grew up in an idolatrous home and during his journey to Israel, while then living in the land, and also during his sojourns in Egypt, he had to overcome a variety of complex situations. What this meant is that he was forced to figure out how to maintain his morality and spirituality in situations and with people who were lacking in morality and/or spirituality.
Significantly, this too was the experience of Rivka who grew up in the house of Betuel alongside her brother Lavan and who nevertheless, as beautifully explained in Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:1, maintained her moral and spiritual sense. In contrast, Yitzchak was raised in a home that was already imbued with morality and spirituality, and unlike his father, he did not leave the borders of the Land of Israel nor experience many of the challenging situations faced by his wife or father, and though Yaakov had spent some of his early years with Avraham and had learnt some lessons about morality and spirituality from his mother, his primary teacher was his father Yitzchak.
But this presented a problem, because while Yaakov had achieved expertise in the ‘Torah of the Beit Midrash’ – which is the knowledge and skills of applying morality and spirituality to environments that are, as Rabbi Kamenetsky describes, hermetically sealed from the moral and spiritual danger of the street, he was ill-equipped to survive in the house of Lavan who was someone known as being manipulative and deceptive.
Given this, Yaakov chose to spend 14 years in the ‘training school’ known as the Yeshiva of Ever which, as previously noted, was an institution first established by Shem (who was a survivor of the generation of the flood) which was continued by his great-grandson Ever (who was a survivor of the generation of the Tower of Bavel). Both Shem and Ever had lived in morally and spiritually troubled times, and each had developed the necessary knowledge and skills of spiritual survival. This tool-box was what Yaakov lacked, and this is why he spent those years supplementing his ‘Torah of the Beit Midrash’ with ‘Torah for the Street’ (nb. as Rabbi Kamenetsky then proceeds to explain in a series of insights on Bereishit 37:3 and 45:28, this knowledge was what he passed onto Yosef which he intuited to be knowledge that Yosef may need for the future and which was the basis of his spiritual survival during his years of isolation in Egypt).
As should be evident, there are many educational implications which can – and should – be drawn from this insight. But in terms of this post from today’s daf which, it should be remembered, is in Massechet Megillah whose focal point is a story all about spiritual survival while living alongside people who are manipulative, deceptive and dangerous, the lesson should be obvious that it is essential to educate ourselves, our children, and our students both with the ‘Torah of the Beit Midrash’ and the ‘Torah for the Street’ with – in my humble opinion – a far greater emphasis, at least for most people, on the latter than the former.
Beyond this, it is equally essential that those from whom we seek guidance about the moral and spiritual challenges of our time are qualified in both areas, because if they are only expert in the ‘Torah of the Beit Midrash’, then their knowledge is sorely lacking in terms of providing the necessary knowledge and skills which their followers desperately need to physically and spiritually survive in a world where there are those who are manipulative, deceptive and dangerous.
Ultimately, if Yaakov Avinu felt that he needed both, surely so do we, and if he spent 14 years learning the art of spiritual survival, I suspect we all need to spend even more time doing so.
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