Yoma 72

Swan Lake.

Since antiquity, the swan has been associated with music; it was believed that swans sang sweetly just before dying — giving rise to the notion of a “swan song.” Far more interesting, though, is the fact that in medieval bestiaries the swan was a symbol of hypocrisy; the brilliant pure white plumage seen as belying the black flesh underneath.

Hypocrisy and the struggle to match our inner and outer selves is a topic of deep interest to the rabbis of the Talmud, and plays a significant role in today’s daf:

The Torah states concerning the ArkFrom within and from without you shall cover it. (Exodus 25:11)

Rava said: This alludes to the idea that any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside, is not a Torah scholar.

We all know or have heard of the outwardly pious religious person, Jewish or not, who secretly cheats in business, commits adultery or worse. Perhaps we know them, perhaps we even love them. They are not a new phenomenon of religious life, and the rabbis are acutely aware of, and sensitive to, the hypocrisy in a life lived this way. 

This concept, in Hebrew tocho k’voro (“its inside is like its outside”), is not a new one for the rabbis. But they see it as a two-edged sword: an ideal to be sure, but also a difficult standard that can be used to unfairly clobber others.

Perhaps the most well-known meditation on this idea is found in the famous story in which Rabban Gamliel is unseated as the nasi, the head of the rabbinic academy (Berakhot 27 and Berakhot 28). He is thrown out because he is too authoritarian and replaced by a young scholar named Elazar ben Azaryah who is wise, learned, well-connected and wealthy (pretty much everything you could want in this job). He is, however, quite young and his wife worries that his appearance is a liability. Miraculously, overnight God grants him distinguished white hair so that he looks the part of the head of the academy — tocho k’voro.

In this new role, the first thing that Elazar ben Azaryah does is throw open the doors of the beit midrash (the house of study) and add benches, allowing anyone who wants to come study. Rabban Gamliel, we are told, had permitted only those students whose tocho k’voro, whose inside was like their outsides. But Elazar ben Azaryah democratizes the study hall, for the better, as Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein explains

“In this regard, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah was the realist, Rabban Gamliel, the idealist. Ideally, said Rabban Gamliel, we would all be completely integrated, our inner essence matching our exterior, but the Talmud acknowledges that complete integration — to our internal character match our outward behavior — is not so simple.”

Of course, ironically, Rabban Gamliel, who had fully looked the part of the head of the academy, had displayed major failings in his leadership. Matching one’s insides and one’s outsides is complicated.

Let’s go back to today’s page and Rava’s idea that a Torah scholar’s insides should match their outward appearance. It seems that the idea of tocho k’voro is not a question of inclusivity or exclusivity; it is not about restricting access to learning and tradition, but rather asking us to examine ourselves — to ensure that we come to our study of Torah, or our commitment to Jewish life, with true intentions. Otherwise, Rava teaches the other sages:

I beg of you, do not inherit Gehenna twice.

If you come to Torah and its study as a hypocrite, or if you study Torah but do not live its lessons in the world, you are doubly-cursed: You are wasting your time in this world, and God’s time in the World to Come. And unlike the swan, it won’t matter how sweetly you sing.

Read all of Yoma 72 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 22nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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