A. Deceptive and Vain
The Talmud cites the verse, “sheker hachen…” and says that charm and beauty (which are deceptive and vain) refers to the Torah study of the generations of Moses, Joshua and Hezekiah. The “praised” generation is that of Rabbi Yehudah, who lived in a time of persecution (Source 1-2).
What is the meaning of this statement? How can we possibly assert that the Torah study of those generations was deceptive and vain?
B. Charm and Beauty
What is the meaning of charm and beauty? Charm is a “natural attraction,” while beauty is something a bit more logical. For example, people find their hometowns charming, regardless of the circumstances (Source 3-4).
During the generation of Moses, the people were charmed by G-d; they were naturally attracted to Torah study. During the generation of Joshua, the charm wasn’t there anymore, but there was beauty. The people clearly saw the benefits of learning Torah and following G-d’s word.
It’s difficult to praise those generations, because it was easy for them. Would they have been the same in easier times? It’s hard to say.
C. Fear of G-d
True dedication to G-d is revealed during times of persecution (Source 5). A person born and raised in the USSR never saw normative Jewish life, and might find very little objective charm and beauty in his Torah study. Yet he demonstrated self-sacrifice that is even greater than that of Chananya, Mishael, and Azariah in the book of Daniel (Source 6). Why does he study Torah? Because he “fears G-d.”
D. Is To Be Praised
Torah study under duress (despite its apparent weaknesses) is the true demonstration of dedication. It inspires us all, and it reveals — retroactively — that the Torah study of previous generations was genuine as well.