Not terribly long ago, during a period of particularly crass consumerism, there was a message loudly proclaimed by many, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” I was always saddened when I would hear this message, or see it on tee shirts worn by ever-growing numbers of young people. Win what? I wondered.
Although that period of consumerism passed, others have arrived. Indeed, the desire for things is a constant tug in our human experience. We spend a lifetime accumulating. There are stories which scrutinize the lives of hoarders, people who cannot relinquish any of what they’ve accumulated. They are sick storehouses of the flotsam of things. Yes, they are the extreme, but all of us accumulate too much. Unlike the hoarders, every so often, we clear out our closets and drawers of the things we no longer “need” so as to make room for those things we do.
Over and over. Accumulate. Clean out. Accumulate. The pattern repeats.
What do we “win”?
In Pirke Avot (6:9) Rabbi Yose ben Kisma teaches an important lesson. As he walked along the road, he encounters a man who greeted him warmly. “Where are you from?” the man inquired. Rav Yose responded that he hailed from “…a city of great scholars and sages”, where the focus is on learning and constant accumulation of knowledge and wisdom. The man could easily see that Rav Yose had few worldly possessions, only those things he absolutely needed to live his life. He also recognized in him a special quality. So, the man asked him, “Why spend a lifetime in your town among all those many scholars and sages? Come with me to my town, where you can serve as our honored rabbi. We will provide you with all things you could ever need – thousands upon thousands of golden dinars, precious stones and pearls.
“You will never want for a thing.”
Rav Yose promptly refused. “Even if you were to give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would dwell nowhere but in a place of Torah.”
Just as a fish cannot live out of water, Rav Yose made clear that a spiritually-motivated Jew cannot survive away from a dynamic, honest, ethical and moral Torah environment. Nothing of the world, no gold, silver, luxury or technological toy can substitute for “the Torah of Your mouth.”
For what do we win? When life is done, what will become of all that we’ve accumulated? After things have broken, fallen into disrepair, become outmoded and uninteresting, what’s left?
“When a man departs from this world,” Rav Yose continued, “neither silver, nor gold, nor precious stones nor pearls escort him, but only Torah and good deeds…”
The truth of his words are self-evident to all of us. We know the superficiality of so much of what we seek in this world. What worth are things as compared to eternal truths and spiritual values?
We know these things to be true. Yes, if we know these things to be true, why is the lesson so difficult to teach?
Rebbeim tell their students to be ever vigilant about who their friends are, where they spend their time, and what influences their lives. Yeshivas try everything to convey the message that golden dinars, precious stones and pearls can never measure up to Torah u’masim tovim.
Why do they not always succeed? What is missing in the message?
Such a simple, straightforward message. But, as it turns out, not as straightforward as it seems. If it were, Rav Yose ben Kisma would have accepted the man’s offer. He would have taken the fortune offered by the generous man and opened a yeshiva, turning the man’s town into a place of Torah.
Wouldn’t you and I have done that?
Build a building. Fill it with caring, genuine teachers. Convey the message of Torah.
But something is missing. In our time, yeshivas and rebbeim are relentless and sincere in trying to convince their disciples to choose Torah over mere things. They are teaching, but their students are not all learning. What’s missing?
We choose to teach. Our students have not chosen to learn.
When asked, “What happened to all those mussar schmussen you sat through? What happened to all those blat Gemarah you learned and knew so well?” how many of our contemporary drop-outs respond, “It never became part of me.”
Learning was imposed upon them. They never chose it.
We know from trying to help so many who struggle with alcohol or substance issues that life changes only occur when the person is ready and wants to change.
L’havdil but so too with Torah.
It must become their choice.
In Bamidbar 22:18, when Balak offers Bilam all the silver and gold in his possession just so he would curse Klal Yisrael, not only does he refuse but he speaks with the same voice as Rav Yose. All the gold and silver cannot dissuade him.
How is it that Bilam’s response is viewed as an indication of greed, while Rav Yose’s refusal is held up as a model for all to emulate?
The difference between the two is very subtle. Bilam said, Lo uchal – I cannot transgress Hashem’s word. In other words, I would if I could, but I can’t. But Rav Yose would not even though he could. “I would dwell nowhere, but in a place of Torah.” Rav Yose chose. It was his choice to remain in a strong, dynamic and embracing Torah environment. (See Sfas Emes)
Rather than telling our students which choice is the one they should make, our goal should be to focus on, and develop, methodologies that encourage our graduates to want to choose Torah values, rather than to feel as though it is a coerced way of life.