It says in Pirkei Avot “velo habaishan lamed,” that “the timid doesn’t learn” (2:5). Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi,in his classic commentary on the Mishnah in Avot explains that boshet (timidity) is always a great trait to have, except in an educational setting. We see this idea in the verse in Tehillim “vadebera bedoteicha neged melachim velo evosh,” “I will talk in your laws opposite kings and I will not be timid” (119:46). When running away from King Saul and standing in front of the kings of the world, King David was not embarrassed to speak about the Torah and mitzvot even though they laughed at him and mocked his words.
In his Sefer Zichron Avot, a Kabbalistic commentary on Avot, Rabbi Eliezer Nachman Poah, an early Italian scholar and student of the great Rama from Pano, has a very novel interpretation of the words “velo habashain lamed.” He explains that whoever sins needs to be embarrassed of his sins, like it is written in the great vidui (confession) of the Rabbeinu Nissim which we recite in the mussaf repetition of Yom Kippur: “boshti vegam nechlamti keganav hanemtzah bamachteret — I am shamed and embarrassed, like a thief that is found in a break-in.”
Someone who has not repented appropriately, he continues, cannot learn Torah, because his unforgiven iniquities block off the wellsprings of wisdom from Heaven to understand the Holy Torah, as is quoted in the Tana Debei Eliyahu Rabbah (the teachings of Eliyahu HaNavi): “Until you beseech Hashem to open your heart to the Torah, you should first ask him to forgive your iniquities” (chapter 14). In other words, the atonement for your sins should precede the understanding of the Torah. We find this by the Tanna Reb Eliezer ben Hurkanos and other great scholars, that before their hearts opened up to the wisdom of the Torah, they received word that their teshuva (repentance) was accepted. Hence, someone who is not embarrassed, i.e. who has not gone through sincere repentance, cannot learn because he is blocked from the wellsprings of wisdom needed to understand Torah.
My dear readers: we should learn from the verse “velo habashain lamed” to never be timid to ask about how to serve our Creator. We should also not forget that if we want to be able to learn His Torah so we can merit to serve the King of kings, we must realize how embarrassing it is to sin against Hashem, our Creator and the giver of all goodness. If we don’t pursue this mindfullness and follow through with a willingness to repent when we have done wrong, we won’t be able to really serve our king.
By Avraham Hanuka
Avraham Hanuka is a simple Jew. Originally from Brooklyn, Avraham learned for 14 years at Ohr Ha’Meir in Peekskill, New York; Beth Medrash Govoha of America (also known as Lakewood East) in Jerusalem; Passaic Talmudic Institute in Passaic, New Jersey; and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. He lives in now Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife Tali.