When the gaon, Reb Chaim of Volozhin, opened his yeshiva, he made sure that his students studied the Torah and also watched over their health as a mother guards her only child. If a student became ill, he would tend to his needs, never leaving his side, day and night.
Every Shabbos after the seudah, he had a standing rule that every student must take a nap. This way they preserved their strength from the rigorous ordeals of constant study during the week.
One Shabbos, he entered the yeshiva after dinner and saw a group of talmidim talking to each other instead of sleeping.
“My sons,” said the gaon, “why don’t you observe the rule of Shabbos where people interpret the letters of the word “Shabbos” to mean (shin) Sheina (bet) B’Shabbos (taf) Taanug. Sleep on Shabbos is enjoyable.”
“Master,” said one talmid, “I interpret the letters to mean Sicha B’Shabbos Taanug (talking on Shabbos is enjoyable).
Reb Chaim immediately replied with a smile, “Therefore does Shlomo HaMelech quote (Koheles 10:2), ‘The heart of the wise turns to the right (when the period is placed over the right side of the letter shin, it means sleep) and the heart of the fools turns to the left’ (when the period appears over the left of the letter shin it means talk).”
The Lack Of Derech Eretz
As the yeshiva grew in size so did its expenses and soon Reb Chaim saw that he couldn’t carry the burden alone. He had to turn to many wealthy people in Volozhin to assist him in providing food and lodging for his many students.
Once he visited a wealthy man who had previously studied in his yeshiva. Reb Chaim hoped he would respond with a generous donation. But when he entered his home, the rich man turned towards him with an angry demeanor.
“What does the rav want?” he said in a cold tone.
Reb Chaim became disheartened and replied, “Don’t you recognize me, Reb Chaim of Volozhin? Don’t you remember the days when you studied in my yeshiva and you gleaned knowledge from me?”
“Those days are gone from me,” replied the rich miser coldly. “I have already forgotten all the Torah which you taught me.”
“It is no wonder that you didn’t recognize me,” replied the gaon. “For our sages teach us that derech eretz precedes the Torah. If you have forgotten the Torah, then assuredly you have forgotten your manners.”
Every Person Has His Station
As the yeshiva continued to expand, Reb Chaim had to hire a meshulach to collect money for the support of the talmidim. One day the meshulach said to the gaon, “All the wealthy people whom I visit look upon me as a kabtzan, a beggar. Therefore, they do not give large donations. However, if I were to dress in proper clothes and ride on my own horse and carriage, as the wealthy do, people would respect me more and they would give me larger donations.”
“Very well,” replied the gaon, “here is money to purchase a rich man’s attire and also for a horse and carriage. You may be right.”
The agent’s plan proved to be successful. Rich people began to respect him more and more. They increased the size of their donations. One wealthy patron, however, refused to give him any money at all. Regardless of his pleadings, he practically slammed the door in his face. When the agent returned home he related his experiences to the gaon and said, “I can’t understand why this wealthy person, who always gave so lavishly, should now refuse me even a penny.”
Reb Chaim decided to investigate and traveled to the home of this wealthy patron. When the rich man saw the gaon coming he ran out of the house to greet him. He invited him into the house and treated him with the greatest of respect.
“Tell me,” said the gaon, “why did you refuse my agent money for the yeshiva? You were always so generous in the previous years.”
“Rebbe,” replied the wealthy man, “I will be honest with you. I considered it an honor every year to be able to contribute to your worthy yeshiva and when I gave to the agent I assumed that every penny of the money was turned over to the yeshiva for the support of the students. This year, when I noticed your agent dressed so well I began to realize that a high percentage of my money went to this agent to clothe him in the best of fineries and to provide him with a horse and carriage. I have no intention of keeping your agent in the style of wealthy people.”
“Listen to me,” replied the gaon. “Do you remember the Chumash you studied when you were a boy? The part in Ki Tisa (Shemos 31:2-4) wherein G-d says to Moshe, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehuda; and I have filled him with the spirit of G-d, in wisdom and in understanding, and in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship, to devise skillful works in gold and in silver and in brass, etc.’
“Now the question arises, what need is there to devise skillful works in gold, silver and brass. Any skilled worker should know his duty and be able to construct the objects of the Mishkan without the need of divine inspiration. But the explanation is as follows: There were various degrees of holiness attached to the Mishkan. The Aron and the Mizbayach were holier than the table and the candles. So it was with the contributors. There were contributors who were unselfish and they donated gold with an open heart. There were other wealthy people who were not so charitable and they donated only silver. Then there were some misers who loved their money more than their love of G-d, and they donated only brass objects.
“Therefore, Bezalel had to use his divine wisdom to use the gold which was given by the charitable and open-hearted poor and rich alike, to be used for the construction of the holy of holies such as the ark. The silver of the not so openhearted was used for the lesser degree of holy objects such as the table and other utensils, while the brass of the stingy people was used for the common objects relating to the building itself and the yard.
“So, too, in our yeshiva,” continued the gaon. “We have various degrees of holiness. The people who give openheartedly, their money goes to the direct support of the students who study the Torah day and night. The people who give but not so willingly, their money goes to the agents and employees of the yeshiva. While those who give in scorn and anger, in a disapproving attitude, their money goes for the horses and the carriages. Which of the three are you?”
The wealthy man apologized for his behavior and doubled his usual donation to the yeshiva.