Law 5 “A fence for wisdom is silence (Pirkei Avos 3:17). Therefore, one should not hurry to respond and not speak excessively. One should teach his students with composure and calmness, without screaming and lengthy speech. This is as Solomon said, ‘The words of the wise, [when spoken] with gentleness, are heard’ (Koheles 9:17).”
For the past few weeks, we have been discussing the value of silence. In this law, the Rambam discusses a related but different idea. The theme of Law 4 was the importance of silence as a means of growing into the Torah’s wisdom. The student, rather than being overly assertive, should remain silent, allowing himself to be shaped by wisdom greater than he. The teacher too must be concise in his words. Rather than explaining every last detail to his students, he must leave it to them to work it out themselves. Each student must grow into his studies and fathom precisely what the Torah means to him.
Here we talk about silence being a “fence” for wisdom. The meaning according to the Rambam is that silence preserves the Torah’s sanctity. Speaking too much cheapens words of wisdom. The Torah’s wisdom must be safeguarded — not in the sense that we keep it from others: our mission is of course to spread G-d’s word rather than keep it for ourselves. However, we must be careful not to sell the Torah short in the process. One who speaks too much, screams, employs theatrics, and attempts to “convince” others he has the truth, has lost the battle before it has even begun. The Torah’s wisdom must speak for itself. We must spread it with “composure and calmness,” allowing others to appreciate the Torah for what it is, rather than attempting to dress it up in a way we feel most alluring to contemporary man.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a) writes that when the great scholar R. Zaira received rabbinic ordination, people sang, “No mascara, no make-up, and no hair-color, and he finds favor.” Likewise, when R. Avahu would depart from a visit with the Caesar, the matron of the house would run after him singing his praises. These scholars did not have to be Don Juans or prince charmings (actually the Talmud elsewhere writes that R. Avahu was strikingly handsome (Bava Metsiah 84a)), but even the non-Jewish observer realized that it really didn’t matter. True greatness can be seen and admired — even by the most superficial among us. The beauty of their Torah knowledge shone through; it spoke for itself.
The Torah does not need make-up or sprucing up in order to be made presentable to the masses. Of course, the experienced educator knows which topics to introduce and emphasize, and modern-day examples give the Torah important relevancy. Yet our focus must not be on marketing and PR. The Torah really does speak for itself; its messages are as meaningful today as ever. We must only teach it sincerely and truthfully and it will speak for itself.
One of the more refreshing aspects I’ve found with the on-line classes I write is that I teach classic texts in their original. I allow the reader to see what the Rambam or Sages had to say themselves. There’s nothing that need be hidden or rewritten in more modern style. The students may see the Sages’ own (albeit translated) words. Of course, again, I bring out ideas which I feel will most resonate with my readers, but I’m not coming to cover for the Sages or to use their words as a front for my own pontifications. I simply attempt to bring out some of the many thoughts which I believe the Sages themselves intended to convey.
Further, we should never feel we must force the Torah down others’ throats. Certainly, we must attempt means of disseminating wisdom to those who would otherwise gain no such exposure, but it must not be done in such a way as to cheapen the Torah and all it stands for. The Talmud writes that if one lives in a generation which does not appreciate the Torah, he should keep his wisdom to himself (Brachos 63a) — rather than watering it down, attempting to impress it upon the apathetic. As much as we want to teach the world the wisdom of G-d, it must never be done in a manner which compromises its wisdom so wholly. We must never appear as the beggars, as if the students are doing us a favor coming to study.
I actually feel it’s a kind of sad situation today that we make so much effort to do precisely what the Rambam says we should not. There should be no need to “market” the Torah, to dress it up and lure others to study it. In spite of the wonderful work organizations such as Torah.org and aish.com do, disseminating Torah in nice, tasty bite-sized portions, attempting to attract the not-so-interested, it really shouldn’t have to be this way. Perhaps there is no choice nowadays, but it certainly dims the Torah’s beauty when the teacher must go running after the student, “convincing” him that it’s worth his while to study Torah.
A good while back I started receiving e-mails from some competing organization which took the liberty to “sign me up” for their weekly Torah mailing — I suppose in an attempt to make me more religious. (I’ll be the first to admit, I could certainly use it.) 🙂 I wrote them back asking to be “unsubscribed” (a word my spell-checker does not like), in the process telling them that in my opinion they’re doing more harm than good signing up people without their knowledge and against their will, being that it turns a religious organization into a bunch of nudniks. (For the Yiddish-challenged, Yiddish words generally sound like they mean; I’m sure you get the idea…) 😉 (Meanwhile, my spell-checker didn’t like that one either.)
Anyway, it turned into a back-and-forth between me and whoever those folks were, in which I wholly unsuccessfully tried to convince them that any gains they may make with an occasional “hit” is far outweighed by the degree to which they lower the esteem of the Torah in the eyes of the masses — both Jew and Gentile. (For that matter, they probably had more “hits” among the non-Jews, but that’s another discussion…) 😉
(Incidentally, for its part, Torah.org practically falls over itself apologizing when someone is signed up against his or her will.)
In conclusion, perhaps it is a tragedy that authentic Torah wisdom is so unappreciated today, and that we must make such efforts pursuing the uncommitted. Yet perhaps that is just the reality today. People are simply not ready for the unadulterated truth. And so, we must apply a little make-up, but hopefully only enough to enhance the Torah’s inner beauty. We must never lose sight of the preciousness of what we’re peddling.
It goes without saying that we must not cheapen the Torah beyond recognition. Handing out Torah leaflets at bus terminals, or sending out mass mailings to anyone with a last name remotely Jewish will only result in getting a lot of Torah thrown in the garbage. And certainly, we must never “modify” our timeless Torah in an attempt to make it more acceptable to the uninterested. Never act desperate — even if you think all will be lost if you do not. Ultimately the preservation of the Torah and Israel’s future is in G-d’s hands.
In Scripture (Deuteronomy 31:21), G-d states that He knows the “song” of Deut. 32 will never be forgotten from Israel. The Talmud comments that this verse contains within a promise that the Torah (also considered a song) will never be forgotten from Israel (Shabbos 138b). (See also Isaiah 59:20-21.) There will always be those who will appreciate and who will patiently study and preserve. Thus, we make our effort to disseminate the Torah and hope we will be heard. But ultimately — as with all things — the outcome is in the hands of G-d. And we trust that He assures our continuity and our ultimate triumph.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org