The city of Gateshead, England, can best be described as quaint. Small in size, it is primarily an industrial town. Its physical appearance leaves little about which to boast. Its spiritual dimension is an entirely different story. Gateshead is home to an excellent yeshivah, world-renowned kollel, Bais Yaakov and seminary. The yeshivah has produced a number of famous Torah leaders. Indeed, the Mashgiach of Beth Medrah Govohah, Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, himself studied in Gateshead Yeshivah and later became its Mashgiach. He described the austere conditions under which he and his friends grew in Torah.
The yeshivah building was actually a converted house, with two adjoining rooms serving as the bais ha’medrash. Space was at a premium, with students sitting shoulder to shoulder around a long table. It was so crowded that their Gemorahs overlapped. Yet, these conditions did not diminish anyone’s ability to succeed in Torah learning. On the contrary, it was due to the mere fact that the students were devoted to learning – even under such conditions – that they excelled to such a high degree.
One day, an American journalist touring England visited the town of Wallsend, a tourist attraction not far from Gateshead. This man was born to Jewish parents, but Torah observance was quite foreign to him. He was aware of some of the more well-known Jewish traditions, but this was the extent of his Jewish orientation and affiliation.
Wallsend’s tourist attraction was an ancient pile of rubble covered by green moss. Apparently, this pile was all that remained of a wall built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian when he conquered England and built a wall to keep the Scottish army from entering his newly-acquired territory. This pile of rubble was the “tribute” to Hadrian’s triumph. Hence, the name Wallsend.
The journalist was occupied with photographing the stones and recording their history, as if it were something of great import. Suddenly, he remembered that that day was the anniversary of his father’s passing. Yahrzeit means a lot to a Jew. For some estranged Jews, it is all they have, all that bonds them with Yiddishkeit. Though he was not observant, the journalist annually made a special effort to recite Kaddish for his father’s soul.
He asked around for the location of a synagogue that might have a minyan during the week. He was told that in the town of Gateshead, some ten miles away, was a yeshivah which had a minyan thrice daily.
He drove over to the Gateshead Yeshivah and entered the little house that served as their campus. The scene which he beheld blew his mind. He was awed by the sight before his eyes. Before him, in the cramped quarters which served as their bais ha’medrash, were young men studying Torah. They were arguing passionately, as each one examined the Talmud closely and expounded upon his interpretation. As the journalist stood there in awe, he heard one student shout at his study partner, “But Rabbi Akiva disagrees!”
When the journalist heard the name of the fabled Tanna, the illustrious Rabbi Akiva, he was taken aback. Somewhat versed in Jewish history, he recognized the name of the Tanna, as one of the most distinguished disseminators of the Oral Law. As a result of defying the decree of the Roman Emperor Hadrian not to teach Torah, Rabbi Akiva had been brutally tortured and murdered It was the same Hadrian who had built what became a pile of rubble.
When the journalist returned to America, he wrote a revealing article about his travels. In it, he observed that nothing was left of the mighty Hadrian, conqueror, ruler, leader of great armies, nothing but a pile of stone and rubble, covered with moss. On the other hand, the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, the man who defied Hadrian and who was the victim of his brutality, the individual who was a thorn in the emperor’s side, whom the wicked ruler sought to obliterate, are still being reviewed over and over, almost 2,000 years after his death.
This is the meaning of atzei shittim omdim. The Jewish People and their Torah stand forever.
Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Hashem Tzvakos. Holy, Holy, Holy – Hashem of Hosts.