Parshas Vayeishev (5774)
The Talmud in Yoma 28b relates: Rabbi Chama ben Chanina said: Throughout the entire history of our ancestors, they were never without a yeshivah [house of study]. When they were in Egypt, they had houses of study, for it says, “Go, gather the elders of Israel” (Exodus 3:16), [“elders” refers to scholars who devoted their lives to Torah study]. When they were in the wilderness they had houses of study, as it says, “Assemble seventy of Israel’s elders” (Numbers 11:16). Our father Abraham was an elder who attended the house of study, for it says, “And Abraham was zakein, an elder, well advanced in years” (Genesis 24:1). [Zakein (elder) is seen as a contraction of zeh shekanah chochmah, “a person who has acquired wisdom through study.”] Our father Isaac was also an elder who studied in a yeshivah, for it says, “It happened when Isaac was an elder [zakein]” (ibid. 27:1). Our father Jacob, too, was an elder who learned in a yeshivah, for it says, “Israel’s eyes were heavy with age [mizoken]” (ibid. 48:10).
We see from here that intense Torah study at a yeshivah has been a tradition that the Jewish people have maintained from the very beginning of our history – and it has continued until this very day.
How many other social institutions can lay claim to having survived for over 3500 years?! Even more fascinating is that yeshivos (plural of yeshivah) have not only survived but are flourishing and growing more numerous year by year. [I myself studied at Beth Medrash Govoha Rabbinical College in Lakewood, New Jersey, which now boasts an enrollment of well over 6000 students, making it the largest yeshivah in the world!]
It must be understood that the yeshivah is not merely an institution where rabbis are ordained. In fact, many students who enroll do not become practicing rabbis or, for that matter, teachers in religious schools. Some may enter accounting, law, business, or other secular fields. This is entirely consistent with the goals of the yeshivah since its primary purpose is to produce pious, G-d fearing individuals who develop a Torah outlook on life and who are well versed in the laws and customs of the Jewish faith.
As the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers (2:8) teaches us, “the more yeshivah, the more wisdom”. The Tiferes Yisrael explains this to mean that by plumbing the depths of Torah at a yeshivah and learning to “read between the lines,” Torah scholars will develop worldly wisdom that will serve them well in social, vocational and practical situations, and they will have a deeper understanding of everything in life.
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin ZT”L, in his commentary Oznaim LaTorah on this week’s Torah portion, writes that the first word Vayeishev is related to yeshivah and can be taken to mean that Jacob studied Torah at a yeshivah. He writes further that each of our forefathers’ yeshivos focused on a different aspect of the faith. Abraham taught Jewish philosophy and proofs of G-d’s existence and Divine providence, while Isaac taught about prayer and fear of G-d. Jacob taught Jewish concepts, laws and customs. And these “subjects” are all part of the curriculum that you will find at any yeshivah today.
A yeshivah education is a necessary and essential preparation for leading a proper Jewish life, and was therefore considered mandatory throughout our history for Jewish children to study Torah at a yeshivah at least in their formative years.
As Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study (2:1): “Teachers of small children should be appointed in each and every land, in each and every region, and in each and every village. If a village does not have children who study Torah, its populace is placed under a ban of ostracism until they employ teachers for the children. If they do not employ teachers, the village [deserves to be] destroyed, since the world exists only by virtue of the breath coming from the mouths of children who study Torah.” Of course there are many Jews alive today who, through no fault of their own, were not privileged to have a proper yeshivah education growing up. However, it is never too late. There are many yeshivos today – primarily in Israel - that are geared to adults who never went to yeshivah as children but who now want to educate themselves as to what it means to be a Jew.
Now I know that some people reading this will say that yeshivah study is not for them, nor do they think that their children or grandchildren will ever step foot in a yeshivah.
In response, I would like to share with you a story my great-uncle Reb Yehoshua Baumol HY”D once told about his late Rabbi and Torah teacher, Rabbi Meir Shapiro ZT”L, Chief Rabbi of Lublin and Dean of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin:
A wealthy individual who had long strayed from the Torah's path sat in his palatial living room, listening to Rabbi Meir Shapiro's request for money for the yeshivah. His face took on an expression of boredom and indifference as Rabbi Meir launched into a long speech extolling the virtues of the boys who sit in yeshivah day and night learning Torah, and the rewards of those who support them, enabling them to study without any material worries. With a wave of his hand, the haughty man interrupted, "Listen here Rabbi, you're wasting your words. I have no connection to yeshivos and their students. I never learned in a yeshivah and neither did my sons, and I sincerely hope that my grandchildren too will never do something so superfluous." "So you consider yourself worse than Haman (the wicked villain in the Purim story), I see," shot back R' Meir. Confused, the man was taken aback. "How do I consider myself worse than Haman?"
"It says in the Talmud that Haman's grandchildren studied Torah [at a yeshivah] in Bnei Brak," replied R' Meir, "and here you are saying that your grandchildren will never do so — surely you don’t think that you’re worse than Haman?" Left with nothing to answer, the man donated a large sum for the yeshivah. (story courtesy of www.chareidi.org)
So you never know, your child or grandchild might surprise you one day and enroll in a yeshivah – worse things have happened …
[To learn more about the modern-day yeshivah and all that goes on inside its walls, try reading The World of the Yeshiva by William B. Helmreich (The Free Press 1982).]