He (Hillel) used to say: A boor is not one who fears sin; nor can an ignorant person be pious. A shy person does not learn, and an [overly] strict person is not one who can teach. And not everyone who increases commerce (“sechorah”) becomes wise. And in a place where there are no “people,” attempt to be a “person.”
The Tanna then continues: A timid person is not one who learns, and an [overly] strict person is not one who can teach. This is due to the nature of Torah. It is written (Yirmiyahu 23:29) “Behold, My word is like fire, proclaims G-d.” And (Devarim 33:2) “From His right hand [came] a law of fire for them.” We learn (see Beitzah 25b and Kiddushin 30b) in the name of Rebbi Meir: Why was the Torah given to the Jewish people? Because they are the most “azim” of the nations, as it is written “a law of fire for them.” (The word “azim” is a difficult one to translate. If we had to choose the one “English” word to best summarize the meaning of its root “az”, it would be “chutzpah.” 🙂 The implication is one of power, boldness, being unyielding, standing firm in a place or situation where others would shy away. See Ch. 5, Mishna 20. This will be elaborated on.) And the Study House of Rebbi Yishmael taught: “A law of fire to them” — it is they (the Jewish people) who are fitting to be given a law of fire.
What is the meaning that “they are fitting?” Just as they are “azim” themselves, so, too, is it fitting that the Torah, which is fire, should become attached to them. Every intellectual matter is related to power and forcefulness, just as fire is powerful and forceful. So the Torah, the purest form of intellectual wisdom, which is as “powerful as fire,” is suited to the Jewish nation, which itself is powerful and forceful.
(The concept that there is power and forcefulness in intellectual matters is rooted in their compelling nature. Due to this pure and compelling nature, nothing can (ultimately) stand up to them, and everything can be overcome by the force of pure “sechel.” It shies away from nothing, and has no problem injecting itself wherever it wants or needs to be. This is comparable to fire, which has the ability to consume everything in its path, turning it in to part of the fire, and shying away from nothing. The concept of “azuth,” power, boldness and chutzpah, implies the ability to stand up to any situation that is required, shying away from nothing. It is this quality of the Jewish people which makes them suitable repositories for the Torah, whose power and compelling nature is likened to that of fire.)
A timid person is the opposite of an “az” (bold and powerful) and he is therefore limited in his ability to receive the Torah. The Torah, which is like fire, was given to the Jewish people due to their boldness and forcefulness. In order to receive an object, the recipient must be able to have a relationship with the object he is receiving. A person who cannot relate to “fire” and its power (as would be the situation for a timid person) cannot properly receive it, due to its tremendous power.
On the other hand, if the teacher trying to transmit the Torah is himself too powerful (overly strict) behaving like fire, then the fact that the human being is composed of a limited physical dimension, makes it impossible for the Torah to be received. Man can receive a law with the power of fire. But if fire of the teacher is added to the fire of the Torah, then man is being asked to receive something which is completely fire, which is beyond his human capacity.
(The idea of the “fire” of the teacher who is overly strict relates to his ego. There is no question that a teacher must demand discipline from his students, both intellectual as well as behavioral discipline. But being Overly strict would be caused by the teacher’s insecurity, leading him to exert his ego. This should be contrasted to appropriate strictness, which would result from the teacher’s desire for the true well-being of the student. The student will be resistant to the teacher’s strictness if it is the result of an ego clash, which is the meaning of the student’s limited physical dimension being unable to receive “fire added to fire.” If the only fire is that of the Torah, man, if he is strong and bold, can receive that, since its nature is one of compelling transcendent truth and wisdom. It would only be man’s timidity that would prevent him from receiving it. “Lo habayshan lameid” — a timid person does not learn.)