[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]
The story from the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot is familiar: Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma, a sage from the 2nd century CE, is travelling. A man greets him, and he returns the greeting. The man asks where he's from; R' Yosi ben Kisma replies that he is from a place of great scholars. The man offers him a great deal of money to come live in his town, and R' Yosi ben Kisma replies that no matter how much wealth he would receive, he would not live anywhere but in a "place of Torah," for wealth is only of value in this world, but Torah remains with us.
The classic question: Does this mean that rabbis should not go live in small towns? What of outreach, and bringing Torah to those who are not fortunate enough to live in a place of many teachers? Was I wrong for going to live in Allentown all those years? Who should teach in schools in some communities, and who should lead their shuls?
I've heard this discussed a great deal over the years, and it seems to me that there are three basic approaches to explain this mishnah:
1. R' Yosi ben Kisma only meant to promote Torah over money
Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma does not actually decline to live in his interlocutor's community; he only preaches on the value of Torah over money, a lesson which is consistent with the themes of Pirkei Avot. "I may well go with you," Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma says, "But not on the basis of the money you offer. I will go only if it is a place of Torah."
This then resolves the conflict of the small-town Rabbi - he may go to a place which is focussed on being/becoming a place of Torah.
2. This case was unique
In this school of thought, R' Yosi ben Kisma indeed declined, but it was not because he rejected outreach. Rather, it was because he discerned some impropriety in the man's request for him to come live there. Perhaps it was that the man only wanted him to live there, but did not ask him to teach Torah. Or perhaps it was that the man thought money could buy Torah. And so R' Yosi ben Kisma decided that in this particular case, it would be inappropriate to move to the town to engage in outreach. Rabbis who are recruited on proper grounds, by good people, certainly should go to small towns.
3. R' Yosi ben Kisma was arguing against [solo] Outreach
Either because he did not believe in the value of Outreach in general (an argument I first heard this Shabbos, and one that requires some thought), or because he was concerned about his own deterioration if left on his own, R' Yosi ben Kisma felt that the price he would pay in going to this man's town to teach Torah was not justifiable. Similarly, rabbis should not go to smaller communities if they will lack colleagues with equal Torah training.
This last approach is particularly important to me. Certainly, you can learn a lot of Torah on your own, and you grow a great deal from teaching Torah. Further, today we have the blessing of email communication, which makes long-distance interaction easier. Nonetheless, living in a place where you lack peers who challenge you and force you to your limits is dangerous, because it does stunt your growth on several levels, including:
• Your own learning is not pushed;
• Your creativity in Torah is not stimulated; and
• Your focus and time allocation are framed by local needs [chesed, shiurim, psak, officiating, counseling, administration] without the input of the world of scholarship.
To me, this means that rabbis in smaller Jewish communities need to find a way to import peers, or to test and sharpen and emphasize their learning with colleagues from afar. There must be a challenge that regularly takes them out of their normal environs, giving them a new goal to pursue and a new horizon to attract their vision. With this stimulation, the Rabbi will benefit, and so will the community.