Rosh Hashanah 23
Ethics of the Fathers tells the story of Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma who was once on a trip when he encounters a fellow who strikes up a conversation.
“Rabbi, where are you from?” the man asks.
Rabbi Yossi replies, “I’m from a great city of scholars and sages.”
“Would you like to come and live with us in our place?” inquires the fellow, “I am willing to give you thousands upon thousands of gold coins, precious stones and pearls.”
The rabbi responds, “Even if you would give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would only live in a place of Torah.”
Two questions: Firstly, this teaching implies that we should all pack up and move to the big Torah centres. What are we doing living in the outlying Jewish communities? Secondly, with all that gelt, why couldn’t Rabbi Yossi just build a yeshiva in the city and create a new place of Torah?
Rabbi Yochanan taught, “One who learns Torah and does not teach it is like a myrtle in the desert.” The meaning of his analogy is ‘If a myrtle grows in the desert and no one is around to smell it, does it have a fragrance?’
Some say his teaching was “One who learns Torah and teaches it in a place where there are no scholars is like a myrtle in the desert, which is precious.”
In the first version of Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching, the myrtle in the desert analogy seems to be negative while in the second, it’s positive. Which is it?
If we look closely at the difference between the two, one is dealing with a place with there are no scholars, and by implication the other one must be dealing with a place where there are scholars. In the first teaching, there are other scholars present in the vicinity and so even if you choose not to teach, you are still considered a myrtle, despite the fact that nobody is benefitting from your fragrance. In the second teaching, there are no other scholars present. If you want to be a myrtle in that situation, you must teach and share your fragrance ‘in the desert.’
Which approach is better? The key is in the final words of Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching. While the same analogy is offered for both, only the second adds “which is precious.” If you are prepared to go out to a place where there are no scholars and teach Torah, that is most precious.
The problem with the fellow who encountered Rabbi Yossi was that he was asking the rabbi to simply “live with us in our place.” He wasn’t asking to learn Torah or that the rabbi should establish a yeshiva in their city. He just wanted the kavod (glory) of having Rabbi Yossi as their figurehead.
Rabbi Yochanan teaches that there are two ways to be a myrtle. Either you live amongst Torah scholars or you go out into the spiritual desert and teach Torah. Living out in the desert and not teaching Torah is not an option, even for all the money in the world.
So if you find yourself living outside the Torah centres, you have two choices. Either you move to a “great city of scholars and sages,” or you start teaching Torah to those around you. I guarantee that as little as you think you know, there are others out there in your community who know even less. If you know an alef and a beis and someone out there only knows an alef, you are obligated to teach them the beis! And certainly, if you are a learned person with a strong Jewish educational background, then you have no excuse!
Find someone to teach! Start a weekly class or a number of weekly chavrusas (one-on-one learning groups)! If you are in the desert, the Almighty has planted you there to become a myrtle! Start spreading your fragrance!