“Hoy! Kol tzmaei l’chu lamaim – All who thirst, go to water” (Yeshayahu 50:1). The words of the navi refer to the concept of dedication and cleaving to Torah. For there is no thirst like that of a man parched for lack of learning and there is no water like that of Torah. This remarkable idea has been internalized by countless Jews who have done without the material benefits of life and who have suffered the pangs of hunger and destitution so that they might have the opportunity to learn the holy words of the Almighty.
And of all these unsung heroes none stands out more than the great Hillel HaZakein.
Not By Bread Alone
Hillel was a modest man living in Bavel. Poor and destitute, he desired nothing more than being close to Hashem and His teachings.
Hearing that in Eretz Yisrael, in the city of Yerushalayim, Shmaya and Avtalyon, the great chachamim of the time, had founded a beis midrash, Hillel decided to leave his home and travel there to hear Torah from them.
After saying goodbye to his father, Hillel took his family to Yerushalayim and visited the home of his wealthy brother who had established himself there years before.
“I have come to learn Torah,” Hillel said to his brother, “and I beg of you to give me a few coins a day to support my family in order that I may have as much time as I need for study.” His brother, however, who was obsessed with the idea of making money, could not understand such a request and turned him down.
Hillel realized that if he desired to learn it would be up to him to find another way. He decided to hire himself out for any available work and labor till he made one dinar a day. Half of this would go to support his family and the other half would go to pay for his place in the beis medrash.
He did this every day and never had he been so happy. If only he could do this for the rest of his life he would count himself as the most fortunate of men.
One day, however, Hillel went into the streets seeking work and there was none to be found. Desperately he went from place to place, but everywhere the response was the same, “Today, there is nothing.” Coming to the beis midrash, he tried to explain to the guard why he had no money, but his pleas were to no avail and he was turned away.
Although heartsick, he thought to himself that there must be some way to hear the words of the sages! And then he had an idea. The roof of the beis midrash was covered in one area by a skylight. If he could climb up there, he could put his ear to it and hear the lesson being given.
And so Hillel quickly climbed to the roof and, just as he imagined, by straining his ears he could just make out the words. He was delighted that he would not have to miss the lesson that day and as he became engrossed in the intricate lesson he be came oblivious to all that went on about him.
Soon, the winter sky, leaden and overcast, opened up and a heavy snow began to descend. It quickly covered the ground and the people in the marketplace and the streets hurriedly gathered their belongings and rushed to the comfort and safety of warm houses. Not so Hillel. He was not even aware of the cold, wet snow as he lay enraptured by the sweet words of Torah.