15 The Wisdom of the Teachers Will Be Spoiled
Chananya Weissman

May 15, 2020

The last Mishna in Sotah provides numerous predictions about the era of the footsteps of Moshiach. See my essay on March 18 about the increase in chutzpah, and how this applies to our times unlike in previous generations.

One of the other signs is "the wisdom of the teachers will be spoiled". This is usually taken to mean that people will scorn the wisdom of sages. However, that too can seemingly apply to most generations, and would therefore provide little indication that Moshiach is on his way.

Chazal chose their words very carefully, and I believe they are giving a precise sign. There were many words they could have chosen to indicate that people would reject the words of rabbis. Referring to the wisdom itself as “becoming spoiled” is a highly irregular choice of words. It indicates much more than the masses being uninterested in what rabbis have to teach.

It indicates the rabbis themselves being uninterested in teaching the masses.

Food spoils when it is left sitting around too long before being consumed. Wisdom spoils when the wise person suppresses it.

In past generations we had towering rabbinic figures who led the people in times of crisis and urged them forward when things were stable. They were not afraid to speak out about issues affecting the Jewish community and the world around them, even at great personal expense. Their names are etched in Jewish lore forever, and their contributions made it possible for us to be here today.

It is specifically in our times that there is a glaring absence of such figures. We have wise rabbis and pious people, most certainly. But where is the leadership? Where is the sacrifice? Where are the voices of wisdom that are bringing us together, speaking about the real issues, and moving us forward? They hardly exist.

We have no shortage of tremendous Torah scholars. They tell us how we can best fulfill technical halachic requirements in times of lockdown. They give us soft mussar in general terms so that no one will be offended, and no one will be moved. They urge us to say a special prayer once or twice during a worldwide upheaval, a response equally safe and benign.

They expect little of us, and we have come to expect little of them. We both prefer it this way.

The Chief Rabbinate had an urgent announcement about the cancellation of bonfires on Lag Ba'Omer, urging us to increase Torah study instead. This is perhaps the most significant message they had for the public since the plague came upon us. The cancellation of the perversity parades passed without comment, of course. They possess wisdom on that subject too, but kept it to themselves.

The wisdom of the sages has become spoiled.

I have no doubt that the rabbinic giants of even the most recent generations would have had much to say on what's happening in the world, and have just as little doubt that it would have been sharp and memorable. What rabbinic wisdom will be remembered from this time? The lifeless proclamations or the words that brought derision on the Torah? There is real wisdom out there, but it is locked up where no one can hear it, rotting away when we need it most.

The Mishna does not refer to the wisdom of the Torah, or even wisdom of the sages, but wisdom of teachers. Earlier in the same Mishna there is a distinction between chachamim and sofrim. Chachamim refers to sages, whereas sofrim refers to lesser people, mere schoolteachers. The wisdom that needs to be shared in our generation is not that of geniuses expounding the most complex areas of Torah. It is the simple wisdom, the basics. It is the clarity to tell between right and wrong, between holy and profane, between rational and absurd.

We don't need towering sages for this. We need teachers – but teachers with the willingness to teach, even if Torah-phobes don't like the lesson.

Let us not be remembered for keeping wisdom to ourselves until it rots, along with our generation. Let the wisdom out, proclaim it loudly and without apologies to the critics, and spread it far and wide.