Tiveria, up north in the land of Israel, gets its fair share of cold weather and snow. Way back when, lived a man named Hillel. Hillel loved to plumb the depths of Torah scholarship, but alas, he didn’t have money to do so full time. Rather, he was forced to make his living by collecting firewood from nearby forests and hawking it to those who had use of it. Each day he’d set out to work, gather the wood, sell it, and, as soon as he had that day’s finances covered, would give his wife the money and head off to learn Torah.
A cold snap hit Tiveria, at precisely the same time as two Torah leaders, Shmaya and Avtalyon, came visiting. Shmaya and Avtalyon were to lecture in the spacious Tiberias study hall, and the trustees of that study hall decided to weed out serious scholars from the homeless vagabonds who might enter the study hall for warmth. The way to do it, they decided, was by charging an entrance fee.
Unfortunately for Hillel, that day didn’t go as usual. He earned nothing that day and, therefore, was penniless as he made his way to the study hall. He was headed there with a purpose. The two Torah giants of that generation would be lecturing, and Hillel did not want to miss it. He begged, he pleaded, he reasoned with the guard at the door to let him in gratis. There was no mercy, no unbending of the entrance-fee-rule. Hillel promised to pay as soon as he had money, but his promise was met with a closed, locked door.
Inside the study hall, the lecture commenced. Outside stood a woebegone man, his clothing in tatters, his body quaking from the cold, and most woebegone of all his spirit — crushed for he hadn’t been allowed in to learn with the Torah greats. Ah, but a great person cannot be held back from his goal. Hillel did not trudge off to his home, beaten. He looked, he searched, and he found – on top of the roof was a skylight. Quick as a flash, Hillel scrambled up onto the roof and bent down to the skylight. Aha, the solution fit. From this vantage point, Hillel was able to see and hear all that was being taught down below.
Snowflakes began descending, soft, quiet and wet. Layer upon layer of snow accumulated, right on top of Hillel; but he was busy concentrating and didn’t note the cold seeping in. As the hours moved on, Hillel, enthralled by the learning, forgot the cold, forgot to move, oblivious to all except his learning. On the wings of his learning he drifted off from consciousness into the sweet sleep that precedes freezing to death.
Luckily, those in the study hall noticed the study-hall was darker than usual. No light was coming in from the strategic skylight which had been built to illuminate the room. Folks looked up to see what the problem might be…and were shocked to see the frozen form of a pauper, plastered up close to the glass and buried in snow. Quickly, some men scrambled onto the roof and brought in the frozen body. Slaps, rubbings, anything to get the circulation going, was administered, and just in the nick of time. Hillel’s eyes opened, and he perceived he was now in the study-hall proper. Up he sat, focused on one thing: he had questions on the lecture that had just been delivered, and he addressed those questions to Shmaya and Avtalyon. A discussion ensued, Torah verses were cited, proofs were brought, the learning was in full swing.
You can be sure that Shmaya and Avtalyon, thereafter, didn’t let Hillel go off into the gentle night. “You,” they told him, “will be our student.” For they discerned in him the dedication to learning necessary for a Torah scholar to blossom. Never again did Hillel have to find back-door means to hear Torah study expounded, for he now merited to learn straight from the masters.
And when Shmaya and Avtalyon moved on to the next world, world Jewry found no better Torah leader to appoint in their place than the once-poor-but-determined Hillel.
And as Reb Yom Tov Ehrlich sums it up, “The Halacha stays like him [like Hillel], that to really know Torah you have to do it the hard way.”
In fact, we are told to be cautious in our dealings with the poor folks, for we are taught the great Torah leaders come from that segment of humanity. Riches might be comfortable, but it doesn’t teach determination. And to become great, determination against obstacles is a necessity.