By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
When the Satmar Rebbe, zt”l, came to America after World War II, Rav Shraga Feivel Medelovitz, the Principal of Yeshiva Torah V’Daas invited him to come to the yeshiva to present a Torah lecture for the students. The Satmar Rebbe gave a well-received shiur and afterwards the students surrounded him to engage in a vigorous Torah discussion.
After the boys left, Rav Medelovitz went to the Rebbe and asked, “Nu, what did you think of that? Wasn’t it beautiful?”
The Satmar Rebbe conceded that it had indeed been a beautiful and impressive experience but, inverting the classic Talmudic teaching on being a Talmid chochom, he hoped that the students would be “on the outside like they were on the inside.”
The Satmar Rebbe not only turned our conventional understanding on its head but in doing so, he also called attention to the essential characteristic of the Talmud chochom – balance on the inside and out.
We live during a time when “appearances” are given unreasonable attention – even in the religious community. We too often overlook the inner qualities that make a person truly religious and pious, qualities that are essential to a Torah scholar. At the same time, we should never forget that it is by our external selves that we shine the light of the Torah to the world and so should not ignore our “outer beauty” either.
This truth is exemplified in the story told by a Chassidic master of the king who wanted to learn the secret of humility. To achieve humility he wore old clothes, ate little food, left his beautiful palace to live in a hovel, and employed men to embarrass him. All this did not help, for he felt more proud than ever before. A wise man then showed him the path to true humility when he advised, “Dress like a king, live like a king, act like a king; but inside, let your heart be humble.”
Inside and outside, in balance. As for the Torah scholar, we find no better model for this balance and this lesson than in the Aron itself. Of all the furnishings that were to be created for the Mishkan, only the Aron – measured two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high – was built to specifications that were not whole, as if to say to the talmid chochom, “Like you, I am never complete either!”
To be a talmid chochom is to be engaged in a lifelong endeavor. As Ben Bag-Bag exhorted, “Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it.” There is always more to learn and understand. To be a genuine talmid chochom is to embrace that lifelong relationship with Torah.
No one ever knows everything.
Because being a Torah chochom is, by definition, a humbling experience – never one that is achieved, only striven toward – we understand that being a Torah scholar is not goal oriented. That is, the reward is not overt, or external. Unlike in worldly matters, where reward is meted out based on completed tasks, on results rather than effort, in Torah study the opposite is true. Reward is granted for effort, not achievement. The Torah student who wrestles with a tractate of Talmud but does not comprehend every line and nuance of the discussion and analysis extols God at a siyum celebration: Heim amelim veinam mekablim sechar, anu amelim umekablim sechar – “They exert effort and receive no reward; we exert effort and receive rewards.”
We seek to understand that which cannot be fully understood. Therefore, our reward must be for our efforts. We are always “striving for” but never achieving full knowledge and understanding.
Beneath the Aron’s gold covering inside and out, its construction is acacia wood. What does this teach us? Why would the receptacle of our Torah, our greatest gift, not be fashioned exclusively from the most precious metals?
Certainly, the wood communicates that Jewish knowledge and scholarship could not be associated only with wealth, riches, or exclusivity. Yes, our inner and outer selves must be equally “gilded with gold” but we must remember that that inner and outer gold cover plain wood, which one day will rot and turn to dust.
Knowing where we come from and whence we go – dust – teaches that the heart of the talmid chochom must be filled with overwhelming love, compassion, and humility.
Sometimes it seems that some well-meaning contemporary Jews, who strive earnestly to become talmidei chochomim, forget where they come from. They indeed become chochomim but somehow, forget to remain talmidim.
Balance. On the one hand, the essence of Jewish learning and knowledge is unpretentious. It is simple wood, available to all, certain to rot in time. On the other hand, we cover that wood in gold because the repository of the Torah, the Aron, should reflect the value we place upon the treasure it holds, the Torah. Inside and outside. Balance.
The talmid chochom must know it is not enough to acquire learning. He must demonstrate respect, reverence, and derech eretz to the Torah. Chazal teach that derech eretz kadmah l’torah, derech eretz must precede actual learning. We Jews must appreciate not only the contents of Torah, but also embrace an approach and attitude toward learning, one that bespeaks the path of learning, and not just the destination.
The Aron was built to be beautiful inside and out but its beauty and value were outside representations of an inner reality. The true scholar knows from whence he comes and to whence he goes. Along the path of that journey, he seeks balance in his inner and outer self. In this way, he remains respectful, normal and humble…