“Wisdom is better than rubies, and all things desirable are not to be compared unto her” (Proverbs 8:2). Rabi Aha explained in the name of Rabi Tanchuma ben Rabi Chiya: “My desirable things and your desirable things are not to be compared to her.”
Arteban, the last Parthian king, once sent Rabi Yehudah HaNasi, a priceless gem with a request, “Let me have, in return, an article as valuable as this.”
Rabi Yehudah sent him a mezuzah.
The king sent back a message, “I gave you a priceless object, and you returned something worth a folar (a small debased coin).
Rabi Yehudah replied: “All of your desirable things are not compared unto her (the mezuzah, symbolizing the knowledge of G-d). Moreover, you sent me something that I must guard, whereas I sent you something that guards you while you are asleep, and while you are awake, as it says ‘When you walk, it shall lead you (in this World); When you lie down, it shall watch over you (in the hour of death); and when you awake, it shall talk with you”’ (in the World to Come) (Proverbs 6:22; Midrash Rabbah 35).
The Priceless Merchandise
Our sages compare the knowledge of Torah to priceless merchandise that we need never fear will be stolen or lost. They narrate the following story:
Once, a sage boarded a ship to travel to a distant land. Aboard the ship were many merchants who proudly displayed their wares. One merchant had the ﬁnest silks, another the widest varieties of spices, and another diamonds and jewelry.
Seeing the sage standing empty-handed they asked him, “What are your wares?”
“I have the ﬁnest of all merchandise,” he replied. “Mine is far more superior to any of your goods. I deal in knowledge and wisdom.”
The merchants all laughed at him. “Your knowledge will be a ﬁne comfort to any empty and hungry belly!” they jeered.
The sage ignored them saying, “You will see who is right.”
In the middle of the voyage, a terrible storm arose and the ship began to sink. The passengers barely managed to scramble aboard a lifeboat but were forced to leave everything behind – their treasures and even their clothes. The lifeboat was washed up on a shore in a distant land, where the people ignored them and didn’t even care to give them food.
The sage, however, entered a beit midrash and soon the people became aware that there was a great man amongst them. They gave him honor and riches and people came from afar to hear his words of wisdom.
The merchants who had been reduced to beggars visited the sage and pleaded with him, “please intercede for us with the officials of this city to provide us with a means to survive. Tell them that we are not paupers but we were once prosperous merchants. Otherwise we will starve.”
The sage remonstrated with them, “Did I not tell you before that my merchandise is more valuable than yours? Your merchandise can be lost or stolen, whereas mine can never be lost. ‘A priceless gift I have given you”’ (Proverbs 4:2).
The Intricacies Of The Torah
Once, Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai was traveling on the road riding on a mule, while Rabi Elazar ben Arak was walking behind him.
Rabi Elazar said, “Master, teach me a chapter of the ‘Work of the Chariot.”’ (The mysteries of Creation and the Chariot as narrated in Yechezkel and other prophets.)
Rabi Yochanan answered, “Did I not teach you that we may not discuss the works of the Chariot with only one person, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge?”
“Master,” said Rabbi Elazar, “permit me then to say something.”
Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai immediately dismounted from the mule, wrapped himself in his tallis and sat down on a stone beneath an olive tree.
When Rabbi Elazar saw him dismount, he asked, “Master, why did you dismount?”
Rabi Yochanan answered, “Is it proper that while you are expounding the ‘Work of the Chariot’ and the Divine Presence is with us and the ministering angels accompany us, that I should ride on a mule?”
Rabbi Elazar began his exposition and a ﬁre came down from heaven and encompassed all the trees and the angels began to sing, “Praise the Lord from the earth, sea monsters and all deeps…fruitful trees and all cedars…” (Psalms 148:7,9,14). A Heavenly voice rang out and said, “This is the Work of the Chariot.”