Rashi writes as follows: “These are the journeys of Bnei Yisrael... Why are these (42) journeys written here? To inform us of the chesed (kindness) of the Omnipresent, for although He issued a decree to move them about and make them wander in the desert...you will find that throughout the 38 years they made only 20 journeys.” My good friend Rabbi Dovid Gurwitz, shlita, showed me something amazing. Each one of the 42 journeys that Bnei Yisrael made are preceded and succeeded with the words “vayisu…vayachanu, they journeyed...and they camped.” The gematria of vayisu is 152, and vayachanu is 80. The difference is 72: the value of the word chesed, kindness!
This week, on the 29th of Tamuz, Erev Rosh Chodesh Av, is the yahrtzeit of the great commentator Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak, zt”l, known the world over by the acronym Rashi (Rabbeinu Shlomo Yitzchaki). The story of Rashi’s rise to fame is recounted by Rabbi Nissan Mindel in his biography of Rashi. Rashi was born in the town of Troyes in France (some say in Worms). His father, R’ Yitzchak, was a great scholar, but very poor. He made a meager living from the sale of wine. Shlomo was still a youngster when he left home and went to study under the tutelage of great Torah scholars. When he returned home some eight years later, he was already renowned as a great scholar himself, and was soon elected the chief rabbi of Troyes.
Rabbeinu Shlomo began to write his famous commentary on Tanach and the Talmud at an early age. At that time, the Torah was very difficult to understand properly, and the Talmud was even more difficult. Rashi decided to write a commentary in simple, clear language that would make it easy for everyone to learn and understand the Torah. But Rashi was very humble, and even after he had become famous far and wide, he hesitated to publicly release his commentary. He wanted to make sure it would be favorably received, and he didn’t want his name to be associated with it. He decided to write his explanations of difficult passages on slips of parchment and set out on a two-year journey visiting various yeshivos and institutions of Torah study. He traveled around “incognito,” never disclosing his identity.
Rashi would come to a yeshivah and listen to the lecture of the rosh yeshivah. There came a difficult passage in the Talmud, which the rav struggled to explain to his students – often unsuccessfully. Later, when the room was empty, Rashi took the slip with his commentary, in which that passage of the Talmud was explained simply and clearly, and placed it inside the gemara of the head of the academy. On the following morning, when the rav opened his gemara, he found a mysterious slip of parchment in which the passage of the Talmud was so brilliantly explained that he was amazed. He told his students about it, and they all decided it must have been sent from Heaven. Rashi listened to their praises of his commentary and was very happy to know how useful it was to the students, but he did not say that he wrote it.
He continued visiting various academies of the Torah in various lands and cities, and everywhere he went he planted his slips of commentary secretly. The way these slips were received made Rabbeinu Shlomo realize more and more how necessary they were, and he continued to write his commentaries on the entire Chumash, Navi, and all the masechtos of the vast Yam HaTalmud (Sea of the Talmud). These mysterious slips of parchment were happily received, copied, and widely circulated throughout all the Torah academies of the day, even though nobody knew who the author was.
Finally, though, his anonymity was shattered. On one occasion, Rashi was discovered planting a slip of commentary in the usual manner, and the secret became known. Immediately he was acclaimed by all as the great author of the wonderful commentary. The name “Rashi” became known throughout the world. In every yeshivah, in every Torah school, Rashi’s commentary was used by young and old, and he opened the eyes of all the Torah scholars. Until this very day, Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud continues to be a key basis for contemporary scholarship and interpretation. Without it, the Talmud would have remained a closed book. With it, any student who has been introduced to its study by a rebbi can continue learning on his own, deciphering its language and meaning with the aid of the great Rashi, z’chuso yagein aleinu.