The Torah in Parashat Toldot tells of the stark difference between Esav and Yaakov, describing Esav as “a man who knew hunting, a man of the field,” and Yaakov as “a simple man, a dweller of tents” (25:27). While the simple meaning of the verse is that Yaakov was a shepherd who resided in tents as he tended to his flocks, Chazal famously understood the term “yoshev ohalim” as a reference to Torah study. Interestingly, the Midrash Tanchuma (Vayishlach, 9) explained on this basis the plural term “ohalim” (“tents”) used in this verse: “There was nobody who toiled in Torah like our patriarch Yaakov… It does not say here, ‘dweller of a tent,’ but rather ‘a dweller of tents’ – he would go from the study hall of Shem to the study hall of Eiver, and from the study hall of Eiver to the study hall of Avraham.” Yaakov was a “dweller of tents” in the sense that he studied diligently in several different “tents” of Torah learning.
Why might it be significant that Yaakov studied in a number of different “tents,” rather than remaining in just a single house of learning?
The image depicted by the Midrash is one of rigorous, proactive learning. Yaakov did not sit comfortably in one place, but rather traveled about intensively from one place to another in the pursuit of wisdom. And thus the Midrash informs us that “there was nobody who toiled in Torah like our patriarch Yaakov.” The Midrash seeks to teach us about “toiling” in Torah, that Torah learning should not be easy, comfortable, relaxing or effortless. Yaakov did not sit comfortably in a tent, but rather invested a great deal of hard work in his studies.
This point assumes particular importance in the context of the difference noted by the verse between Yaakov and Esav. The Torah describes Esav as “a man of the field,” which we naturally associate with laudable qualities such as courage, daring and physical exertion. With these words still echoing in our ears as we read the next words – the description of Yaakov as “a dweller of tents,” we might naturally think of Yaakov as a lazy, easygoing, passive man who chose the “easy life” as opposed to the challenging, exciting, ambitious lifestyle embraced by his brother. The Midrash therefore emphasizes that Yaakov did not enjoy an easy, relaxed life in a comfortable “tent.” He, too, exerted a great deal of effort and worked very hard, intensively and tirelessly pursuing knowledge and wisdom.
The message, then, is that Torah study should never be the “easy” option, and success in learning should never be expected to come without exertion and effort. While the phrase “yoshev ohalim” might conjure an association with comfort and ease, the truth is that the “tents” of Torah study must be places of hard work, discipline and intensive effort, the indispensable prerequisites to the acquisition of knowledge and scholarship.