No Soap Radio : Being on the Inside of Learning

No soap radio” is a form of practical joke and an example of surreal comedy. The joke is a prank whereby the punch line has no relation to the body of the joke; but participants in the prank pretend otherwise. The effect is to either trick someone into laughing along as if they “get it” or to ridicule them for not understanding. While I never found these jokes particularly funny, they do bring to light the nature of humor is that is creates or defines a group. Does a joke define a group by including or excluding people?

I was thinking about this question when reading the start of parshat Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites are told to contribute exactly half a shekel of silver to the Sanctuary. Instructions are also given regarding the making of the Sanctuary’s water basin, anointing oil and incense. “Wise-hearted” artisans Betzalel and Aholiav are placed in charge of the Sanctuary’s construction. There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft

Exodus 31:1-3

What was this quality of being “wise-hearted” or having a “divine spirit”? At some level this speaks to a notion of intuition or artistic imagination that they had. About Betzalel we learn later when explaining how Betzalel understood something that God told Moshe better than Moshe. Rashi quotes the Gemara in Berachot:

Moshe said to him [Beztalel], “You were in the shadow of God [בְּצֵל אֵל, which is the meaning of Bezalel’s name. I.e., you are right], for surely that is what the Holy One, blessed be God, commanded me.” [from Ber. 55a]

Rashi on Exodus 38:22

Betzalel’s artistic wisdom came from his being in the “shadow of God”. In an interesting way Moshe admits that Betzalel is on the inside of the joke in a way that Moshe himself is on the outside.

I was thinking about the origin of Betzalel’s name in contrast to the famous story of Hillel. Hillel was very poor in his younger days. He would earn only half a dinar for an entire day’s work, some of which he spent to gain admittance into the study hall. The entrance fee was one quarter of a dinar, leaving him with a daily allowance of one quarter of a dinar to live on. Yet, even in such poverty, Hillel the Elder never considered using the money on anything other than the study of Torah. One Friday, he found no work. Unable to pay the entrance fee, he was denied admittance into the study hall of Shemaya and Avtalyon. Hillel was so determined to continue learning that he climbed on to the roof and listened to the lecture through a skylight. It was the depths of winter, and snow began to fall. Hillel remained on the roof all night, and was buried in snow. The next morning, Shemaya realized that there was a figure blocking the sunlight. The students retrieved him from the roof, and even though it was Shabbat, lit a fire to warm him. Although it is forbidden to light a flame on Shabbat, one is commanded to do so in the case of saving a life. There we read:

The Sages continued and said: That day was Shabbat eve and it was the winter season of Tevet, and snow fell upon him from the sky. When it was dawn, Shemaya said to Avtalyon: Avtalyon, my brother, every day at this hour the study hall is already bright from the sunlight streaming through the skylight, and today it is dark; is it perhaps a cloudy day? They focused their eyes and saw the image of a man in the skylight. They ascended and found him covered with snow three cubits high. They extricated him from the snow, and they washed him and smeared oil on him, and they sat him opposite the bonfire to warm him. They said: This man is worthy for us to desecrate Shabbat for him. Saving a life overrides Shabbat in any case; however, this great man is especially deserving. Clearly, poverty is no excuse for the failure to attempt to study Torah.

Yoma 35b

Hillel is not on the inside crowd, but he desperately wants to have access to Torah. So much so, that he put his health at risk. The next day when they come in there is a pall on the Beyt Midrash. In this moment the older generation of scholars are being literally eclipsed by the next generations leading light. Just as Betzalel was in the shade of God, the Beyt Midrash is in Hillel’s shadow. In this case, the spot light is on how exclusive they were being.

It is always better feeling the warmth of being on the inside of a joke and a group. What is the nature of Jewish learning that makes so many people feel like they just do not get the joke?


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