This well known Yiddish expression, which means that the Torah is the best merchandise, sums up our historical love of the Torah. The nations of the world spent their free time at circuses and amphitheatres whilst the Jews learned the heilige Torah. Our neshomos absorbed faith in Hashem and a moral code unequalled by any philosophy then or now. We sharpened our brains on the intricacies of the Talmudic discussions and were inspired by beautiful examples of elevated behaviour by our Tanaim and Amoraim.
We have been enthalled by stories like those of Reb Yehoshua ben Chananya (Eiruvin 53b) who said that he has never been bested except for when he was put in his place by … a young girl and young boy. The case of the young girl was when he was walking across a path over a private field. The young girl said “Isn’t this a private field?”
(which you may not cross because of possible damage to the crops). He answered, “ Isn’t this a used path?” (a path used by the public already which may be used by a stranger). The young girl responded swiftly. “Yes, it’s been used by robbers like you!”
In the other case he was walking along a road and came to a junction where a boy was sitting. “Which way is to the city?” he asked the boy. The boy answered that this way is short and long and the other way is long and short. Reb Yehoshua ben Chananya followed the route which was short and long. He soon reached the outskirts of the city but found his way blocked by vegetable gardens and orchards, so he had to the retrace his steps. When he reached the junction he complained to the boy, “You told me that this way was short!” The boy replied, “Didn’t I tell you that it was long?” Reb Yehoshua ben Chananya kissed the boy on his head and said how blessed the Jewish people that they are so wise from the oldest to the youngest.
This loving relationship between the Jewish People and the Torah is the context of the widely observed custom to stay up on the night of Shevuos, learning the Torah. Every year, on this night, Botei Medrash from London to Los Angeles, Manchester to Melbourne and Tel Aviv to Toronto are full of men and boys staying up learning sometimes with the encouragement of cheese cake, ice cream and cholent! The world is absorbed by narishkeiten and we are learning the heilige Torah!
What does a Jew do with his spare time? Learns the Torah. What does a Jew do after he is retired? Learns the Torah. What does a bas Yisroel want from her husband? That he should learn the Torah. What does a Jewish child strive to be able to do when he is older? To learn the Torah. The Torah is like a magnet which every Jew is drawn towards. Rashi (Shabbos 150a) says that Jews are always thinking about words of Torah. A person without the Torah is like flotsam on the stormy seas. He is rudderless, anchorless and totally adrift. He floats towards nothingness. He is drawn after his heart and eyes and risks sinking to the murky depths, physical and technological. His only hope is to find a way back to the Torah.
Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav (Brochos 54b): Four people need to thank Hashem —Those who travel overseas; those who journey through the wilderness; one who was ill and recovered; one who was dangerously imprisoned and escaped. What do they say? Rav Yehuda says: Boruch…hagomel l’chayovim tovos shegemolani kol tov. “Blessed be the One who does good even to the undeserving, who did me all this goodness.” Abaya says that he must say this brocho in front of ten men, as it says, “ They exalted Him in an assembly of people.” (Tehillim 107:32). Mar Zutra said that two of the ten should be talmidei chachomim as it says, “And they praised Him in front of the wise ones.” (ibid)
Why do people who have had these particular experiences need to thank Hashem? Why in front of ten people and why do two of the ten need to be talmidei chachomim? We all know that after travelling overseas, we “bentch gomel” on the next day that the Torah is read. The listeners respond; Mishegemolcho kol tuv, hu yegemolcho kol tuv sela. “The One who did you this goodness, He should continue to do you only good, for ever.” It is a beautiful mini-ceremony. We bless Hashem, the people bless us and afterwards usually people to give us a friendly sholom aleichem. But we just asked several questions on why the Gemoro limits the occasions when we say the brocho and why in this way. True the Shulchan Aruch (219:3) says that the requirement to have two Talmidei Chachomim is only lechatchila and the custom is not to be particular but nevertheless we should try to understand why Mar Zutra in the Gemoro mentioned it.
The Maharsha gives a beautiful explanation. He says that we are not just thanking Hashem for the miracle of surviving these four different experiences. He explains that there are four situations which prevent a person from studying the Torah as much as he would like and being able to be involved in mitxvos and maasim tovim. The situations are poverty, wealth, illness and enemies. A poor person is searching for a parnoso to put bread on the table for himself and his family. He may have to travel distances to earn some money here and there. How much time will he have left to learn? He is like the holchei midbar those who journey through the wilderness searching for something to eat or drink. A wealthy person, strangely enough, is also hindered by his situation from advancing his avodas Hashem. Firstly, having a substantial income is very likely to reduce the quality of his tefilos. To the magid who urges people to daven sincerely for the blessing of parnoso, the wealthy man might smilingly produce his latest bank statement. Furthermore, says the Maharsha, the wealthy man might well have investments overseas which require him to travel to check them. He might have property in Europe, a business in China and a banana plantation in Ecuador. By the time he visits all these places, how much time has he left to learn? He is symbolised by the yordei hayom – those who travel overseas and cannot learn the Torah properly, as we learn in Eiruvin (55a) “The Torah is not over the sea.” (Devarim 30:13 ). Reb Yochonon said this means that the Torah will not be found with the merchants (who are constantly travelling overseas).
If a person is ill (chas vesholom) of course it is difficult to learn. He may be weak or in pain. He may be busy going to appointments with the doctor or in hospital. In hospital it is certainly difficult to learn. Lastly, a person with enemies who might plan to imprison him or who have already imprisoned him in the past, is fully occupied with avoiding them. He is too worried at the prospect of being captured, to learn or do other mitzvos with a calm mind.
If a person has been in any of these four situations but is now free, he has to thank Hashem and bentch gomel. “Hashem in His great kindness has taken me out of poverty, danger and so on, even though I am undeserving”. However the emphasis is not, according to the Maharsha, on survival, that he has been the beneficiary of a miracle but rather that he can now learn, daven and do other mitzvos properly. He has time to learn. He has the peace of mind to daven. He can concentrate on all aspects of avodas Hashem without the worries and disturbances which he had before. That is why he says the brocho in front of ten people, two of whom are talmidei chachomim. Yes, he has survived b’chasdei Hashem and this he announces in front “an assembly of people’ as it says: Nodeh lecho unesaper tehilosecho – “I will thank You and speak of Your praises.” But there have to be two talmidei chachomim to indicate that the main thing he is thanking Hashem for is that he now available to put all his efforts into learning and avodas Hashem.
In Parshas Bechukosai we see how Hashem rewards those who study the Torah diligently. “Im bechukosai teleichu” on which Rashi comments, “If you will study diligently…You will merit that the rains will fall at the right time, you will have ample crops” etc. The late Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l understood this as a continuation of Parshas Behar with its central theme of shmitta. During the shemitta year, the farmer is forbidden to work and has time to learn Torah. “If you study diligently, during this shemitta year when you have the opportunity, you will be rewarded that in the other six years you will have rain in the right time and your crops will be very plentiful.” Wherever we live and in whatever year, the same promise applies. If we learn diligently whenever we have the opportunity we will be blessed with ample parnoso. We may follow the beautiful custom of some who instead of rushing to work, have a morning chevrusa or go to a morning shiur. And lo and behold, the same customers come in later; somehow our income goes up rather than down as logic might have suggested. After all, Toira is der beste Schoira!