Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On the Road

Art:Alex Levin

At the end of Pirkei Avot [Ch. 6:9], Rabbi Yossei ben Kisma tells the following story:

I was once walking on the road, when a man greeted me, and I returned his greeting. He said to me "Rabbi, from what place are you?" I told him "From a great city of scholars and teaching scribes am I."

He said to me: "Rabbi would you be willing to live with us in our place? I would then give you a million golden dinar, and precious stones and pearls."

I answered him: "Were you to give me all the silver and gold and precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not live anywhere but in a place of Torah."

And so it is written in the Book of Psalms [ch 119:72] by David King of Israel: "Better to me is the Torah of Thy word, than thousands of gold and silver [pieces]".... It is further stated [Chagai 2:8] "Mine is the silver, and mine the gold, says the Lord."

The Midrash Shmuel suggests that Rabbi Yossei ben Kisma did not notice the man who greeted him. Had he noticed him, he would have greeted him first, as required by the Torah. [Berachot 17a]

Kehati explains that Rabbi Yossei did not accept the offer, mentioning the verse that states that all the riches belong to Hashem. Therefore, Hashem can provide him with his livelihood without having to move to another town.

From the Commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

The numerous details told in this story will clarify some intriguing points:

1) Why is it relevant to specify that Rabbi Yossei was once walking on the road?

2) The man only inquired as to where Rabbi Yossei was from. Based on his answer, he made an incredible offer. Wouldn't it be more logical to first ask for the Rabbi's name and credentials before deciding to hire him? And how relevant is it to know where he was from?

3) In his answer, Rabbi Yossei says that even if the man would give him all the silver and gold in the world, he would only dwell in a Torah environment. However, the man only offered one million dinar, so why did Rabbi Yossei reply with such exaggeration?

4) When Rabbi Yossei mentions the verse from Tehilim, he cites the author Dovid HaMelech. He does not name the author of any other verse he mentions.

5) Why was it necessary to cite so many verses in support of his decision? How does the last verse, pointing out that all silver and gold belong to Hashem, strengthen his argument?

6) Pirkei Avot is supposed to teach us morals and ethics. What message can be learned from this story with regard to our actions?

Rabbi Yossei ben Kisman's Divine service centered on absolute devotion to the study of Torah. Involvement with any other matter interfered with his studies. That is why he specifies that this story took place when he was once on the road, pointing out that this was an unusual situation, since he was always studying in the Beit Hamedrash.

Nevertheless, even while travelling, Rabbi Yossei was absorbed in reviewing his Torah, and he did not pay any attention to by-passers. For that reason, he did not greet the man first. It was precisely this intense concentration which triggered the interest of this man. This was enough to convince the man that Rabbi Yossei was an uncommon sage. He did not need to know his name nor to ask for any references.

Then the stranger proceeded to ask where Rabbi Yossei was from. By asking this question, the man wanted to know if Rabbi Yossei was indispensable to his town. When Rabbi Yossei answered that he came from a town full of Torah scholars, the man felt that the Rabbi's departure from his home town would not alter its spiritual standing. Therefore, he invited him to serve in his town and promised him a million golden dinar. This offer was made so Rabbi Yossei would be able to devote his attention entirely to the community, with no worries about his own livelihood. This wealth would also enable Rabbi Yossei to give charity generously.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Yossei declined the offer, replying that all the money in the world will not move him from a place of Torah. Rabbi Yossei meant to say that even if he possessed all the money in the world, allowing him to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah in the most complete way possible, he would still pass up this privilege in order to stay in a place of Torah. This offer might have been suitable for another rabbi, but Rabbi Yossei's efforts were to be directed only to Torah studies.

Rabbi Yossei then brought support for his approach by mentioning Dovid HaMelech. As a King, he was very wealthy and all his riches were spent for the needs of the monarchy and the needs of the people [Sanhedrin 21a].  Nevertheless, even though he knew the benefits of wealth, King Dovid proclaimed that he preferred the Torah over gold and silver, even when used positively. Why did Rabbi Yossei, as well as King Dovid, favour Torah study over the abundance of deeds (that are facilitated by wealth)?

The main difference between the study of Torah and the performance of its comandments is that in order to be able to perform any mitzvah, some money is needed. The Midrash says [Vayikra Rabbah 27:2] that if one wants to affix a mezuzah on his door post, Hashem has to give him enough money to buy a house, and this applies to every mitzvah. This is the meaning of the verse that Rabbi Yossei mentioned, that all the money belongs to Hashem. Thus, our mitzvot are facilitated by Hashem. The study of Torah, however, does not depend on Hashem [Devarim 30:12] but rather on our own effort. This was Rabbi Yossei's sole interest and to this end did he aspire.

A story is told about a Jew whom the previous Rebbe advised to spend more time studying Torah and less time indulging in worldly matters. The man replied that a Rebbe is detached from the material world and cannot appreciate worldly pleasures. "Should the Rebbe be put to the test and know the great pleasures life has to offer, the Rebbe would not ask me to forfeit them" said the man.

Here we are given advice by Rabbi Yossei ben Kisman, a man who was put to the test, and nonetheless chose to remain in his Torah environment. No money in the world could distract him from his special way of life.

Based on the Sicha of Bamidbar 5734 and Pinchas 5741
"From The Rebbe's Treasure" Vol.2 - by the Students of Seminary Bais Menachem, Montreal Canada - Merkos Publications

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