This week, as we begin the new school year, we present a letter from the Rebbe in which he reminds us all of the obligations which both the schools and the parents have in the education of our children. A unique and powerful message woven through the well-known story of Hillel the Elder and hismesiras nefesh for Torah learning. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s personal trusted secretary, Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
By the Grace of G-d
29 Tammuz, 5737
Silver Springs, Md.
Greeting and Blessing:
This is to acknowledge receipt of your comments on “A Thought of the Week” on the subject of Torah study, wherein you take exception to the story of Hillel and the doorkeeper of the Bais Hamedrash, as related by our Sages and cited in the said “Thought.”
Needless to say, in relating this story and including it in the Torah (meaning – teaching, instruction), the Sages did not intend to focus on the doorkeeper’s conduct with a view to condemn him. The real purpose of the story is to bring out a two-pronged lesson, both for those who are in the category of the doorkeeper and those who are in the category of seeking admission to the house of learning, as pointed out in the said “Thought.”
First of all, there are several points in the story which you have apparently overlooked:
It should be self-evident that the doorkeeper had no idea that his refusing to admit Hillel would result in any danger to him (Hillel).
It should also be self-evident that the charge of a (relatively small) fee for admission was necessitated by the need to defray the costs of maintaining the school. It only reflects the general state of poverty of Jewish communities in those days which could not afford to provide free tuition to advanced students. This can also be seen from the poor economic situation of Hillel himself.
It may be assumed that had Hillel sought assistance or intervention, he could have gained admission without imperiling his life. But in view of his character and extraordinary humility, as related in various places in the Talmud and as indicated in this episode itself, it was out of the question for him to accept charity or any special favor. He would only use his own hard-earned money for admission, and even if he could be admitted free, by way of a special “scholarship” as it is now called, it would be at public expense, which would not be acceptable to him.
A further mitigating circumstance is the fact that – insofar as the doorkeeper is concerned – Hillel had been paying the admission fee daily, prior to the incident. Undoubtedly, the doorkeeper did not know that Hillel was paying for it with half of his daily earnings, for true to his character, Hillel would surely not have boasted about it. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Hillel was well able to pay for his admission, but for some reason did not want to pay it on that particular day.
Now for the lessons of this story:
Insofar as those who are in the category of the doorkeeper, those in charge of admission to a Yeshivah or similar institution, they should bear in mind that Torah study is a matter of life for a Jewish boy and girl and should seek every possible means to make it available to each and every Jewish boy and girl. Even if there may be a doubt that a particular applicant might be trying to evade paying for tuition, no child should be turned away; nor should any applicant be made to feel embarrassed in any case of hardship. Unfortunately these principles have not always been fully observed in admissions to some Day Schools and Torah institutions in the present time.
And for those who are in the category of seeking admission to Torah learning, the lesson is that no sacrifice should be too great when it comes to Torah study. Even those who have been learning Torah every day, and it is a question of missing just one day (as in the case of Hillel), the same sacrifice should be made not to miss even a single day of Torah-study.
There is surely no need to elaborate further on the above.
To conclude on a more personal note – seeing your interest in Torah-study, as is evident from your annotations, I am confident that you realize its underlying principle, which is – as our Sages define it – “learning for the purpose of practicing,” for “the essential thing is the deed,” namely, the fulfillment of the mitzvos in the daily life and conduct. This includes, of course, the mitzvah of v’ohavto l’re’acho komocho, the Great Principle of our Torah, which makes it the duty and privilege of every Jew to work for the dissemination of the Torah and mitzvos to the utmost of one’s ability, both by “words coming from the heart” and, even more effectively, by showing a living example.
The above letter is from The Letter and the Spirit by Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP).
These letters were written originally in English and were prepared for publication by Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, whose responsibility it was the Rebbe’s correspondence in English and several other languages.
We thank Rabbi Shalom Ber Schapiro, who was entrusted by his father-in-law Rabbi Mindel with his archives and who is Director of the Nissan Mindel Publications (NMP), for making the Rebbe’s letters available to the wider public. May the merit of the many stand him in good stead.