Editor’s Thoughts: The Dark Corner of the Beit Midrash
We express gratitude before you, God, our God and the God of our fathers, that you have established our portion with those who dwell in the beit midrash, and have not established our portion with those who sit in corners (Prayer of Rav Nehuniah Ben Ha-Kaneh, Berakhot 28a)[i]
In the Yeshivah is a holy silence
Which he the Talmud-student is first to break;
For there, in the dark corner, wait for him
His faithful companions since the day he first arrived –
There are his friends: his stand, his candle, and his Talmud.
(Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Ha-matmid)[ii]
Who are the people who “sit in corners” in Rav Nehuniah Ben Ha-Kaneh’s prayer? When we recite this prayer upon the completion of a day of learning, or the completion of a tractate of Talmud, who are the yoshevei beit midrash that we praise and who are the yoshevei keranot that we disparage? Classically, the words yoshevei keranot have been translated as referring to idlers, those who do not spend their time fully committed to learning within the hallowed walls of the beit midrash. However, reading Bialik’s poem Ha-matmid has taught me that sometimes it is possible to dwell in a “dark corner” even within the sacred space of the beit midrash.
In Ha-matmid, Bialik describes the disciplined and lonely study of a particular Talmudic student. He praises the single-minded devotion of the student, whom he labels the matmid. The matmid toils sleeplessly over the endless folios of the Talmud. Each day he wakes before the sun rises, and each night he allows sleep to reach his eyes long after the stars appear in the night sky. Daily, the matmid’s quest to master the world of Torah begins in the same dark corner where he greets his stand, candle, and his Talmud. “Ha-poh beit ha-yotzer le-nishmat ha-umah,”[iii] Bialik questions aloud. Could this place- the beit midrash – be the very place where the eternal soul of the Jewish nation has been forged. Could it be that the unyielding devotion of the matmid in the “beit yotzer” otherwise known as the beit midrash holds the key to the eternality of the Jewish people?
Perhaps. And yet, Bialik’s admiration of the matmid’s discipline is overshadowed by his disdain of the matmid’s life of total separation within the “dark corner of the inner walls”[iv] of the beit midrash. While the beit midrash has sculpted the Jewish soul, Bialik bemoans the fact that it has also become the “prison house”[v] of the Jewish soul. The matmid , in his unremitting study of Torah, is actually a prisoner – shackled and held back from interacting with the world. He is a prisoner policed by himself, “self-guarded, self-condemned to the study of the law …”[vi]
How could the matmid sit alone in his dark corner, swaying back and forth, melodically reciting the words “Oi, oi, amar Raba, Oi, amar Abbaye”[vii] when there is so much happening in the world directly outside the beit midash’s windows. Bialik castigates the matmid:
Can it be that while life around you with a thousand voices
Calls in a thunder chorus, can it be
That not a murmur to your heart has passed,
That in self-conquest you remain blind and deaf?[viii]
Bialik yearns for the day when the Torah scholar will glance outside the beit midrash’s windows and finally realize that the world eagerly waits to hear his/her scholarly voice.
The poem Ha-matmid truly frames the existential conundrum that should bother every denizen of the beit midrash. To which type of beit midrash do we belong? Do we dwell in a beit midrash of windows or do we dwell in a beit midrash of dark corners? In my mind, this is the very question that R. Nehuniah Ben Ha-Kaneh’s exit prayer poses to us every time we complete our daily Torah studies. Is our Torah engaged with the world?
The choice of this year’s first theme as “the world of the beit midrash” was deliberate. Unquestionably, a focal point of the Yeshiva University experience – both on the Wilf and Beren Campuses – is (or at least should be) the beit midrash. The students, rabbis and teachers of Yeshiva University stand for a unique mission and are poised to add their (varied) voices to the world. Our “kol torah – the sound of our Torah” can, should, and must extend beyond the walls of beit midrash. The Jewish community yearns for us to peer outside our beit midrash’s windows and contribute our voices – both reactively and proactively – to creating and participating in conversations happening at our doorstep. Through Kol Hamevaser, we hope to promote a reflective, relevant, insightful (and of course well-researched) conversation amongst the Yeshiva University student body, staff, and beyond.
In the final stanza of his poem, Bialik expresses his final pleas and dream to the matmid. He dreams that just “…once the wind of life should pass through you [the matmid], and blow clear through the Yeshivah doors…”[ix] He dreams of a day when the “voice of Torah” and the “voice of the world” will no longer be separated by the doors of the beit midrash.
Indeed, the windy season of fall has arrived in full gusto, bringing our world storms both metaphorical and real. Perhaps, next time you exit through the doors of the beit midrash and feel the “wind of life” brushing across your attentive heart, recite Rav Nehunia Ben HaKaneh’s prayer under your breath. Pause, contemplate the words, and then honestly ask yourself “to which type of beit midrash do I belong?”
I hope the answer is as follows: I’m a proud student of Yeshiva University, and in our batei midrash there are no dark corners.
Dovi Nadel is the Editor-in-Chief of Kol Hamevaser on the Wilf Campus. He is a senior in YC majoring in Torah ve-Hokhmah and sits on the right side of the Glueck beit midrash. He occasionally glances toward the beit midrash’s windows, even though the shades are generally closed.
[i] Translation is my own. The prayer is based on Berakhot 28b. The original text of the prayer was actually expressed in the singular form, “I express gratitude.” The text above is the version traditionally recited at the completion of learning a tractate of Talmud and appears in the plural, “we express gratitude.”
[ii] Bialik himself wrote that “he who reads his people’s literature in translation is like one who kisses his mother’s face through a veil.” This is definitely true of reading Bialik’s poetry. There is a vast qualitative difference between the original Hebrew and the translations. All translations in this article are based off of: Hayyim Nahman Bialik “Ha-matmid”, in The Complete Poetic Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik , ed. By Israel Efros ( Histadrut Ivrit of America Inc., 1948), 35-56. Translations were also done in consultation with a Hebrew version of the poem found in: Hayyim Nahman Biaik “Ha-Matmid,”in Kitvei Hayyim Nahman Biali (Dvir publishing house, 1935) 20-34.
[iii] Pg. 43
[iv] Pg. 36
[vii] Pg. 43
[viii] Pg. 48
[ix] Pg. 56