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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: Fourth Mishna

By Rabbi Sender Haber

After generations of a single ruler, the Jewish People were now led by two great men: Yosi ben Yoezer and Yosi ben Yochanan.

They only differed on one Halachic point, but their approaches to Judaism and to leadership were very different.

Yosi ben Yoezer said, “Make you home a meeting place for sages. Get dirty in the dust of their feet and drink their words with thirst”.

Yosi ben Yochanan said, “Open your house up wide and let poor people be the members of your household”.

On the surface, it would seem that Yosi ben Yochanan is the more liberal of the two. He had relaxed entrance policies and was clearly not an elitist. Yosi ben Yochanan, on the other hand, seems to advise limiting ones company to scholars.

There is another approach to this as well.

Antigonus Ish Socho had tried his best to inspire his generation in both the love and the fear of G-d. His message was on the mark, but his generation could not accept it. The concept of love was too daunting and the concept of fear was almost unnoticed. They certainly couldn’t do both. Later generations split the message. One taught love the other taught fear.

This is the depth of “Chabad”. It is an acronym for Chochma (Wisdom), Bina, (Understanding), and Daas - which is a combination of Chochma and Bina. Good Daas leads to good decision making. Bad Daas leads to bad decisions.

Everything in life is a combination between book knowledge and street smarts. Every good couple is a combination between information and application. If we are lucky the emergent result is Daas – common sense, which is not very common at all.

In the case of Antigonus, he possessed a Daas that was incomprehensible to those who lived in his times. Instead the next generation focused on either love or fear, either knowledge or understanding.

Yosi ben Yoezer emphasized the primacy of knowledge of G-d and love. He understood that some may not be motivated to serve G-d out of the love, but pointed out that everyone can admire someone who does.

Yosi Ben Yoezer gave us an easy way out. Learn about G-d he said, invite scholars into your home, drink their words thirstily, and be willing to get yourself dirty from their dust.

Yosi ben Yoezer did not focus on personal responsibility. He focused on knowledge and role models. That was enough to save the next generation.

Our forefather Avraham was a nomad. He moved around and pitched his tent in many places, but he only received a prophecy in the Plains of Mamre. This was because Mamre was a good friend who admired Avraham and encouraged him to go ahead with the circumcision. He welcomed Avraham into his property, and that brought G-d with him.

Avraham’s servant Eliezer was considered a holy man. The Torah tells his story three times because “The idle talk of the servants of the forefathers is more significant than the Torah of the children”.

The idea is that we can gain from just being in the presence of a holy person or, better yet, having them in our presence.  While we may be lacking in deep and personal understanding, we gain wisdom and knowledge that we would not otherwise have.

Often people will come to a class that they cannot understand just to experience the ambience and the concepts and the conversation. That experience and the knowledge gained is significant.

One interpretation of getting “dirty at the dust of their feet” is that we should watch the arguments. When Eisav and Yaacov fought the language of dust is used as well. But when it comes to Torah scholars we are taught that even a father and son can become enemies, but they are not hockey players, they always become better friends at the end of the argument.  We have so much to gain just by sitting close enough to the argument for the dust to settle on our clothing.

This was the message of Yosi ben Yoezer to his generation. He was the first Nasi. He was a role model and not a lawmaker. His role was to show the world a holy person and his role was to show the world how holy people argue.

We need to recognize that even if we are not ready to live the words of Antigonus, there are others who are. We can love Hashem and serve him by drawing those holy people close to us.

In the language of philosophy, a person’s house refers to his or her mind. The Abarbanel points out that even if we cannot invite scholars into our literal homes, we can still invite their character and their words into our minds and allow them to form a context of holiness that we can draw upon and eventually emulate.

One of the fondest weeks of my life was the one in which Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg Shlita came to Australia. I was fourteen at the time and was given the task of assisting Rabbi Scheinberg and making sure that all of his needs were met. At first, Rav Scheinberg was very upset to see me and told my father to send me back to school. He begrudgingly relented to my presence when we promised that my Chavrusa would join me in the dining room so that I could continue my learning while he met with people in an office upstairs.

The highlight of my week came in the form of a glass of fresh mousse with a cherry on top. At the request of the woman of the house (Mrs. Herzog), I took leave of my Chavrusa and brought the delectable dessert upstairs to the Rosh Yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva thanked me politely and, for the first time all week, asked if I would do him a favor. Of course I said yes. My excitement turned to wonder as he handed me his spoon and asked me to stay for a few minutes and eat the Mousse. It was delicious and I told him so. He thanked me again and I took leave, taking care to return the empty glass to the kitchen.

I returned to my chavrusa but it wasn’t long before the woman of the house, noting the uncharacteristic speed with which “Rav Scheinberg” had devoured the mousse, asked me to bring up another glass which she had painstakingly prepared.

She confided in me, saying, “I finally found something he likes”. I just licked my lips and smiled.

The rest of the week was as sweet as it was instructive. My role as Rav Scheinberg’s assistant was to arrange his appointments, answer the door, and eat his mousse. My chavrusa was a little jealous when he found out, but I had no intention of sharing my responsibilities.

This is what we gain from holy people. Rav Sheinberg spent the week in his Tefillin and Talis. He never uttered an idle word and his prayers and devotion to study were incredible. But I learned the most from his every day actions. They showed how to live my life as a Torah Jew. By watching even the most mundane actions of holy people we gain a very broad and practical understanding of Torah concepts that we might not grasp on our own. Inviting holy people into our lives helps us grow closer to G-d when we can’t do it on our own.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber , Shlita. 

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