Baal HaTurim, 1:38: Because serving is greater than learning.
Moshe Rabbeinu recalls how HaShem instructed him that he would not enter the Land of Israel, and instead he would be replaced as leader by Yehoshua Bin Nun. The Baal HaTurim cites a quote from our Sages to explain this, that ‘serving a wise man is greater than learning from him’.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlit’a explains that the Torah’s use of the words ‘who stands before you’ as opposed to who learns from you, indicates that the fact that Yehoshua stood before Moshe Rabbeinu to serve him was the key aspect that caused him to merit to be the leader ahead of the other great people of the time.
This idea is all the more powerful based on the fact that the commentaries offer proofs that Yehoshua was not the greatest person amongst the Jewish People apart from Moshe Rabbeinu: The Ramban writes that the twelve spies were named in the order of their spiritual greatness – Yehoshua is only fifth in that list, indicating that four of the spies were on a higher level than him.
Likewise, the Rambam only names Yehoshua as Moshe’s student, after Elazar and Pinchas, implying that they were on a higher level. Yet, the Midrash states that Yehoshua merited to succeed Moshe as leader because he served him with all his energy, and accordingly, he would also serve the Jewish people as their leader. This is why, of all Yehoshua’s positive traits and deeds, the Navi singles out the fact that he served Moshe.
This is not the only time that we see that one who served a great man merited to attain a higher level than people who were otherwise greater: The Navi tells us that Eliyahu was about to go up to the Heavens. There were fifty other Prophets, known as the Bnei HaNeviim, who asked Elisha about what was happening to Eliyahu.
Rashi notes that when they referred to Eliyahu they called him, ‘adonecha’ – ‘your master’, as opposed to ‘our master’. This teaches us that they were Eliyahu’s equals, and they must have been on a higher level of Nevuah than Elisha, who was not Eliyahu’s equal. If that is the case, whey, then did Elisha merit to become the leading Navi instead of them?
The Be’er Moshe explains that Elisha merited this honor because he excelled in the area of shimush Chachamim, serving or attending to the needs of Torah scholars. Indeed, Chazal’s source that ‘shimusha gedolah milimudo’ is Elisha’s serving of Eliyahu: The verse says that “he [Elisha] got up and he went after Eliyahu and he served him.”
The Tanna Debei Eliyahu notes that the verse does not say that Elisha ‘learnt’ from Eliyahu, instead it says that he ‘served’ him, and it must be because serving a wise man is considered a higher level than learning from him. This is why Elisha merited to lead the nation instead of the Bnei Neviim, even though they were originally on a higher level than him.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot also proves that shimush chachamim is essential in succeeding in Torah, as it is one of the 48 ways in which the Torah is acquired. This means that even if a person constantly learns, and even has teachers, he cannot fulfil his potential in Torah if he does not in some way serve chachamim. Indeed, the Talmud states that a person who has learnt but has not served Torah scholars, is a bor – an ignorant person.
Rav Yaakov Emden explains why shimush chachamim is so vital: He writes, “By serving, one does not move away from his teacher, as it says with Yehoshua, ‘he did not move from the tent’. Through this, he sees and knows all the ways of behavior of his teacher. Also, in derech eretz, nothing is hidden from him, and even the ‘idle chatter’ of Torah scholars needs to be studied. It emerges that the earlier generations who were fearful and trembled for the word of HaShem, that even minor matters and non-holy discussions, that they heard from their teachers was beloved to them.”
Rav Emden is teaching us that shimush chachamim does not merely mean serving them but it means that through serving them, one spends time with them and observes their every action and word. It seems that this trait separates some Torah scholars from the Gedolim – as well as being huge masmidim (one who learns constantly), they were invariably dedicated to spending as much time with their great teachers as possible.
Rav Elchanan Wasserman hy”d was someone who exemplified the example of a student who made extreme efforts in not just learning from, but serving and observing his teacher, the great Chofetz Chaim zt”l. While the other students learnt Torah from the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Elchanan saw the Chofetz Chaim as a living Sefer Torah and strived to learn from his every action and word. Whenever he heard that someone spoke with the Chofetz Chaim he would ask (if it was not private) the person to reveal exactly what he had said. His dedication was to such a great extent that he became a genuinely new person through his serving and observing of his great teacher.
We cannot aspire to the same level of shimush Chachamim as these great men, but the examples of Yehoshua, Elisha and Rav Elchanan teach us that it does not suffice to learn Torah without striving to learn from and serve a great Torah scholar.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon that this aspect of a person’s Avodat HaShem can be neglected through lack of awareness of its importance. A person can say that it is difficult to make a connection with a Torah scholar, and no doubt that is true, but many people have proved that, with enough effort, it is possible, and those people often attain greater heights than their contemporaries, who may be more intelligent and even bigger masmidim.