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"Wisdom Cries Out in the Streets"

Harav Yehuda Amital



"He called to Moshe, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…" (Vayikra 1:1). Rashi explains:


"He called to Moshe" – the Divine voice reached his ears, but the rest of Israel did not hear it…

"From the Tent of Meeting" – this teaches that the Voice stopped and did not emerge outside of the Tent. Perhaps this was because it was a weak voice? [Surely not; therefore] it is written, "the Voice" (Bamidbar 7:89) – what is this voice? It is the voice of God described in Tehillim (29:4-5): "The voice of God in strength, the voice of God in splendor; the voice of God breaks cedars." But if this is so, why does the Torah say, "from the Tent of Meeting"? This teaches that the voice stopped. 

Similarly, we find written, "The voice of the wings of the keruvim was heard until the outer courtyard" (Yechezkel 10:5).  Perhaps this was because the voice was weak? [Surely not; therefore] it is written, "like the voice of the Almighty God speaking" (ibid.).


Chazal emphasize the fact that the voice that Moshe heard in the Tent of Meeting did not emerge outwards. Why is this so?


The Gemara (Berakhot 28a) recounts that when Rabban Gamliel was the Rosh Yeshiva, he placed a guard at the entrance to the beit midrash and instructed him that only those people whose "inside was like their outside" should be allowed to enter.  In other words, only those who were learned scholars not only outwardly, but also in their innermost personality, would be allowed to study Torah. The Gemara goes on to record that when Rabban Gamliel was replaced as Rosh Yeshiva by Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, the latter had the guard removed and allowed anyone who wanted to enter and learn, to do so. On that very day, the Gemara records, many more benches were brought into the beit midrash; some say four hundred benches, and some put the figure at seven hundred. When Rabban Gamliel heard this, his heart fell, because he feared that he had prevented all these people from learning Torah by placing the guard. That night he had a dream that informed him that those who were entering were not worthy of learning Torah – but the Gemara testifies that this dream was only a gesture in honor of Rabban Gamliel, and meant merely to placate him.


From this anecdote, we see that it is important that a beit midrash be open to all who wish to learn. It should not limit its population to a small group of learned scholars, who alone will understand the language and methodology of Torah study.


Elsewhere, the Midrash (Tanchuma, Bechukotai, 3) recounts that Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachmani saw Rabbi Yonatan bar Elazar in the marketplace, and requested that he teach him Torah.  The latter replied that they should go to the yeshiva and he would teach him there.  Rabbi Shemuel asked what was wrong with teaching in the marketplace; is it not written, "Wisdom cries out in the streets, she lifts her voice in the squares" (Mishlei 1:20)? Rabbi Yonatan replied that the proper interpretation of the verse views the words, "lifting her voice in the squares (rechovot)" to mean, "in a place where people broaden (marchivin) wisdom – these are the synagogues and batei midrash."


This explanation seems problematic: clearly, the literal meaning of the verse is not that Torah should be studied only in the beit midrash, but rather that it should be taught to the masses – outside, in the streets and squares! The midrash's interpretation does not mean to tell us that Torah's voice should not emerge outwards.  Rather, it means that the voice should emerge and influence the outside specifically by means of, and by virtue of, the study that goes on inside beit midrash, in "the place where Torah is broadened."


The messages arising from these two anecdotes are important ones. Inside the beit midrash it is necessary that the voices from outside manage to enter, and that the study that goes on inside is aware of and sensitive to the sound of the "infant's cry." At the same time, it is necessary that the voice that emerges from the beit midrash should also pertain and belong to the outside, the street, and not stop at the door of the beit midrash.


Only in the Tent of Meeting, in the encounter between God and Moshe, was there a miracle whereby the Divine voice stopped at the curtain of the Tent. But everywhere else, the voice must burst through the walls and reach the marketplace, the people outside.


In prewar Lithuania, there was a clear separation between the Torah scholars and the regular folk – to the extent that the term "balebatim" became an expression of scorn, referring to people who were not learned and who therefore were not deserving of one's attention and respect. I saw the negative consequences of this hierarchical approach. However, styles of Jewish study that directed their messages also towards the street, towards the simple people, succeeded and remained strong.


Today there exists an entire sector that does not direct the voice of its beit midrash outwards. This Torah study uses codes and language that anyone outside of the clique cannot understand, and obviously they will not feel any attachment towards it. We have tried, here in our beit midrash, to create a style of learning that can be understood on the outside, too. It is for this reason that we instituted serious study of Tanakh and Jewish philosophy, we publish books, and we see that, indeed, the voice that emerges from the beit midrash is meaningful to people outside, too.


When we planned our beit midrash, the architect wanted to build it without windows; she wanted all the light to come from inside. I insisted that there be windows. When she asked why, I told her that once there was a Rebbe whose disciples came to him and told him that the Messiah had arrived. He poked his head outside the window, sniffed the air, and announced decisively that the Messiah had not yet come. I told her that I needed a window so I could know when the Messiah arrived.


There is great depth to this story. When the Messiah comes, his presence will be felt not only in the beit midrash. It will be felt in all circles, on all levels – even in the very air outside. It is for this reason that it is necessary that the voice of Torah be felt on the outside, and not only within the walls of the beit midrash; and conversely, that the beit midrash have a sense of what is going on outside.


Moshe Rabbeinu indeed experienced a unique phenomenon whereby the Divine voice did not emerge outwards; God spoke to him alone, privately, with no interruptions. But in general, it is vital that the voice also make itself heard outside, and belong to all sectors of society.


[This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Vayikra 5765 (2005).]

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