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Who Is Wise?

November 21, 2020

One of the greatest titles that one can earn is to be considered a תלמיד חכם (talmid chacham). It’s a description generally reserved for great Torah scholars and those who have studied for many years and mastered much of Torah. One might guess that it translates to scholar, genius, learned, or wise. But, in fact, it means something quite different. Literally translated, a תלמיד חכם means a student of knowledge.

The Torah describes:

ויגדלו הנערים ויהי עשו איש ידע ציד איש שדה ויעקב איש תם ישב אהלים.

And the young boys (Eisav and Yaakov) grew up. Eisav was a man who knew how to hunt, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a simple man who sat in the tents. (Bereishit 25:27)

I have two questions. Firstly, why is the great Yaakov referred to as a תם, a simpleton? Rashi explains that, “אינו בקי בכל אלה כלבו כן בפיו מי שאינו חריף לרמות קרוי תם, he was not an expert in these areas (of Eisav), like his heart so too was his mouth, as one who is not sharp in deception is called a תם. (Rashi Bereishit 25:27)” In other words, Yaakov is being called simple in that he was honest and straightforward, as opposed to Eisav who was cunning, clever, and deceptive. But in a verse that is describing Yaakov’s commitment to Torah study, wouldn’t you expect it to mention that he was wise or knowledgeable? Was he really just a תם? Remember the four sons at the Pesach seder- I would have guessed that Yaakov was the חכם, the wise son, not the תם!

Secondly, I understand that Yaakov spent much of his time learning in a Beit Midrash, which the Torah refers to as a tent (and perhaps it literally was). But why does it refer to multiple tents? What does it mean that Yaakov was ישב אהלים, dwelling in tents?

Radak (Bereishit 25:27) explains:

ואמר אהלים לשון רבים כי היה לומד עם כל חכם שהיה מוצא עם זה ועם זה כי כל חפצו היה בזה.

It (the Torah) says “אהלים, tents” in plural because he (Yaakov) would learn with any wise person that he could find, with this person and with that person, because his whole desire was in this.

Yaakov didn’t just sit and learn in one tent with the same teacher, chavrusa, and friends. He went to multiple tents, he sought multiple teachers, and he learned with, and from, whoever he could. Long before the words were written, Yaakov knew very well the phrase in Pirkei Avot: “איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם, who is one who is wise? One who learns from every person. (Pirkei Avot 4:1)” True Torah wisdom is not determined by how many books you’ve read, how many pages you’ve memorized, or how many tractates you’ve finished, but by how many people you have learned from, and from your willingness to continue learning from everyone.

Being called a תם is no insult. I am sure that Yaakov was plenty smart, yet he acted as a תם, a simple. humble person merely seeking knowledge, wisdom, and Torah from wherever it could be found. He was one who appreciated hearing different perspectives, being challenged with various questions, and considering multiple answers. It’s no surprise then that he ultimately became the father of twelve very different sons. Each one was special, and each was righteous, but each was different.

One can learn for many years and become an accomplished Torah scholar. And that is certainly something for which we all strive. But ultimately, the greatest accolade one can achieve is to become a true תלמיד חכם, a student of wisdom. There is no end and there is no degree at which a person can say, “I’ve learned so much Torah, and now I’m finished.” The Torah itself trains us to be constantly learning, questioning, reconsidering, listening, and discussing. Yaakov taught us what it means to be a true תלמיד חכם. Let’s all follow in his way and learn from each other.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

Sat, April 10 2021 28 Nisan 5781