“Rabbi Yossi ben (son of) Kisma said: One time I was walking along the way and a certain man met me. He greeted me and I returned the greeting. He said to me: ‘Rabbi, where are you from?’ I responded: ‘I am from a large city of scholars and scribes.’ He said to me: ‘Rabbi, would you be willing to dwell among us in our place, and I will give you hundreds of thousands of gold coins, precious stones and pearls?’ I said to him: ‘Even if you would give me all the silver, gold, precious stones, and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere other than a place of Torah.’ So too it was written in the Book of Psalms by David, King of Israel: ‘The Torah of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver [coins]’ (119:72). And further, when a person departs this world neither his silver, gold, precious stones, nor pearls accompany him, but only his Torah study and good deeds, as it is written: ‘When you walk it will guide you, when you lie down it will protect you, and when you arise it will speak for you’ (Proverbs 6:22). ‘When you walk it will guide you’ — in this world; ‘when you lie down it will protect you’ — in the grave; ‘and when you arise it will speak for you’ — in the World to Come. And it says: ‘To Me is silver and gold says the L-rd of hosts’ (Haggai 2:8).”
The lesson of this week’s mishna is fairly straightforward. Torah study and good deeds possess far greater intrinsic value than material wealth. R. Yossi would much prefer living his life immersed in Torah study than immersed in wealth. Our riches, belongings and portfolios will part company with us at the grave (if our portfolios even make it that far), leaving our souls none the better. Our Torah study and good deeds, however, are eternal; in fact, their true value will only truly be appreciated after our deaths, when they accompany us before our Creator.
The wording of our mishna, however, is not so straightforward — and perhaps there is more to see than the simple lesson above. Presumably, R. Yossi is quoting an actual conversation he had with a stranger. If so, why upon being asked where he’s from did he give such a quizzical response? Why didn’t he answer the question posed: “Where are you from?” “I’m from Jew Town, U.S.A.” If pressed further “What kind of place is that?”, he might have answered: “It’s a big city with lots of ultra-orthodox Jews.” Why instead did R. Yossi immediately offer this unsolicited and rather affected response? (“Not only am I great, but I live and associate with great scholars alone.”)
The questioner then spares no time. He is immediately willing to offer the rabbi exorbitant sums to lure him to his own town. It seems an unusual offer: Why is he so anxious to invite the rabbi if the whole concept of a single scholar — let alone a large town of them — seems so foreign to him?
Even further, however, why didn’t R. Yossi take up the offer? The stranger wasn’t asking him to refrain from his Torah study; he seemed to *want* a rabbi in his town. If so, why couldn’t the rabbi take up the offer, begin living in comfort, and continue with his studies? Did he insist on living in poverty rather than wealth? Do not the Sages state, “A poor man is considered dead?” Or was he such a novice that he required a large Jewish infrastructure for his studies?
Even more difficult, why didn’t R. Yossi take up the offer and go *teach* Torah? Wouldn’t it have been equally worthy — if not more worthy — to go to a place lacking in Torah knowledge in order to spread the faith far and wide? Was R. Yossi planning to forever lock himself up in his own ivory tower, never venturing beyond the confines of his city of scholars? Wouldn’t this have been a fantastic opportunity — all expenses paid — to spread his Torah knowledge to others, to the vast multitude of Jews less fortunate than he?
To truly understand the dialogue of our mishna, we must place ourselves in the shoes of the participants. What inspired the stranger — friendly enough to be first to extend a greeting — to ask R. Yossi where he came from? Clearly, he saw a person of unusual appearance, a man with a long beard, payes (sidelocks), long frock coat, black hat, etc. (I’m obviously giving the modern equivalent of our mishna’s scenario — but I’m sure the concept applied equally well back then. The man instantly recognized R. Yossi as a rabbi.) To him R. Yossi was an oddity, something out of a novel, not a real-life character. And he asked him, with sincere amusement: “Are you for real?” “Are there still real people like you nowadays, in the 21st century?” It was not confrontation which roused this friendly stranger to pose his question. He just could not fathom such an anachronism, such a quaint and antiquated figure walking the streets as a regular person. “Are people like you really found nowadays, in the modern world?”
R. Yossi could likely have talked himself out what most of us would have considered an awkward situation. Most of us do not like being noticed or standing out in a crowd. We go to great lengths to blend in with our surroundings, even if among polite and fully-respecting Gentiles. So R. Yossi might have easily been tempted to come up with some kind of excuse. (“Oh, we’re doing a screening of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ just outside town. I took a break to go out and look for a beer.” Or: “Just brought the horse and buggy in from rural Pennsylvania for a monthly stock-up. I thankest thee for thine most gracious greetings!” (The latter approach was supposedly once used successfully by a Chassidic Jew.))
R. Yossi, however, held his ground. He felt no need for excuses or apologies. “I come from a big city where everyone resembles me.” What did he mean to say? I’m not an anachronism. There is a whole city of people like me. We are real people, part of a vibrant and bustling metropolis, and very much a part of the “real” world. Is a city not “modern” or “real” if it doesn’t have bars, pool halls, and blocks of ill-repute? So, just as affably as the questioner wondered out loud where such people exist today, R. Yossi gently but firmly asserted that such people with such lifestyles certainly do exist. They are alive and well, part of a thriving culture, and see no reason to “modernize” themselves in order to blend in.
The dialogue of our mishna continues. The stranger immediately offers the rabbi a coveted rabbinic post — asking him to come join his community. No doubt he admired R. Yossi for his convictions — perhaps even more so for proudly standing up to this friendly confrontation. And he made an offer no rabbi could refuse (so he thought). “We could use a man of your convictions in our temple. I’ll get your nomination through the synagogue committee. No price is too high.”
R. Yossi, however, rightly saw the fatal flaw of the stranger’s words. He was talking the language of money, and money talks: “Nothing in life you can’t buy. We’d like to have a rabbi like you. It will give our temple a touch of class, some old-fashioned authenticity. You name the price, and we’ll meet it.” No doubt, the stranger also talked another closely-related language, that of honor: “We’ll be the talk of the town. We’ll proudly sow off our “real” rabbi to the temple down the block. Our membership will skyrocket (so long, ahem, as the rabbi answers to the board and knows his place (and remembers who hired whom!)).”
R. Yossi recognized, quite accurately, the language the stranger was talking. He wanted to buy Torah, to gain, through sheer purchasing power, a part of R. Yossi’s greatness and convictions. This R. Yossi could not accept. One who humbly sits before the Sages may become a student of Torah. One who, possessing the financial means, sees the primacy of Torah study and wants to do his part can become a supporter of Torah. But if the money comes first — is pursued and hoarded relentlessly — and is subsequently used to “buy” Torah (or to buy pardons), this the rabbi would never accept. Such money was not worthy of supporting Torah. It had always been its own ends. It could not easily be translated into a means.
I once heard R. Zev Leff see this message in the wording of the stranger’s request itself. He asked R. Yossi to “dwell among us in our place.” The implication was not only to physically dwell in his city, but to dwell *among* them — to be fully a part of their culture and society. The stranger wanted the rabbi to come down to their level and their standards. He showed not the slightest hint of willingness to change himself and to raise himself to the rabbi’s greatness. This was because he was not looking for a rabbi to lead and inspire him to greater heights. He wanted to stay right where he was — both physically and psychologically — in a town of money and with his own personal riches and standard of living. He just wanted R. Yossi to come to him, giving his life a little rabbinic sanction, making the deal oh so sweet — for both himself and the rabbi — by means of his bottomless purse.
And again R. Yossi was not willing to accept such a deal, not for any amount of money. Just as the stranger showed no willingness to move up in life, so too was R. Yossi ill prepared to move down. And in this we have an important lesson. The Talmud (Sotah 21a) distinguishes between two individuals who want to support Torah study. The first embarks on his career from the start solely to support others in their Torah study. The second, however, pursues money for its own sake, and then afterwards attempts to buy his way into the World to Come by giving some of his money away. Regarding the latter, the Talmud applies the verse in Song of Songs (8:7) “If a man will give you all the wealth of his home for [your] love, utterly scorn him.” As always, what is truly worthwhile in life can never be bought with money.
And the lesson is one which echoes until our times. To be sure, most people who amass fortunes do not do so initially in order to support Torah causes. We all seek our fortunes (most of us just not successfully). Yet the true question emerges when such a person decides to bestow his largess upon others less fortunate. Does he do so in order to expand himself and enhance his reputation even further? Is funding a Jewish institution a means of getting one’s name inscribed on a building — as well as lowering one’s tax rate? Or is he giving charity because he recognizes the sanctity of Torah study and knows that money is only truly valuable if used towards such an ends. If money is still paramount in his life — in every way — he is attempting to buy his way into the World to Come — and G-d does not accept bribes. If, however, the Torah is primary and his money becomes devoted to its service, then he transforms his riches, the very source of his complacency and physical prosperity, into something as sacred and eternal as the Torah itself.
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright (c) 2002 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Project Genesis, Inc.