On the previous daf, we learnt the frightening statement of Rava that Yerushalayim was destroyed because there were no אנשי אמנה (trustworthy people.)
He backs this shocking accusation up with a verse (Yirmiyahu 5):
שׁוֹטְט֞וּ בְּחוּצ֣וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַ֗ם וּרְאוּ־נָ֤א וּדְעוּ֙ וּבַקְשׁ֣וּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶ֔יהָ אִם־תִּמְצְא֣וּ אִ֔ישׁ אִם־יֵ֛שׁ עֹשֶׂ֥ה מִשְׁפָּ֖ט מְבַקֵּ֣שׁ אֱמוּנָ֑ה וְאֶסְלַ֖ח לָֽהּ:
Go walk around the courtyards of Jerusalem and please see, and know, and search in its streets, if you can find a man, if there is one who performs justice and seeks trustworthiness, and I shall forgive her.
In a no holds barred rebuke, the prophet Yirmiyahu gives the about to be exiled inhabitants of the city a divine message that if even one honest man can be found in her streets, Hashem is prepared to spare her.
Rava deduces from this that the inability to find even one such person, is the reason for the destruction!
It is beyond our ability to even fathom that the holiest city of the holiest nation in history had sunk to the depths where not even one honest man could be found in it.
It could well be that this statement is to be seen as somewhat of an exaggeration which comes to teach us that the people as a whole did not meet the high levels of total honesty that was expected of the “chosen people.”
However, even if this is the correct way of reading this verse and passuk (which is questionable,) there is no escaping the severity of the statement and the fact that the prophets and sages viewed lack of honesty as one of the worst possible characteristics, making it a leading candidate for the cause of the destruction.
The frightening fact that these were not necessarily the most evil, crooked people, or that different from many of us, can be further backed from the continuation of the sugya.
The Gemara questions Rava’s harsh statement with a seemingly contradictory statement of Rav Katina, who states that even at the lowest point reached in the city, there were always honest people left in it, and brings another, rather cryptic, verse to back himself up.
The Gemara interprets this verse to mean that people at the time would confess that they hadn’t invested in their Torah studies and that they were basically ignorant of all 3 main areas of study, Mikra (the written word), Mishna, and Talmud.
This seems to imply that people were so honest that they would not even claim to have learnt more than they had.
The Gemara attempts to retort that this could simply be because they didn’t want people to question them and find their knowledge lacking, but have nothing to do with their inherent honesty, and thus not apply in situations where others were not likely to find out.
It answers that this would not be a reason to be this honest and harsh on themselves, because if asked a question they were unable to answer, they could simply reply that they had learnt it but forgotten!
The fact that they were completely straight about their lack of effort in their learning and resultant lack of knowledge shows that they were doing it out of honesty!
This might seem trivial, but I can personally attest that one of the hardest things for someone who is in a position of leadership is to admit his shortcomings regarding his qualifications.
People go to incredible lengths to make themselves seem more qualified than they are, sometimes to the point of forging the necessary documentation.
Those of us in the world of Torah teaching also like our students and followers to look up to us and see us as good examples in our learning, to the point that we are sometimes tempted to exaggerated our knowledge .
Sometimes we even convince ourselves that it is in the greater good to do so, so that we will be able to get their ear and at least influence them to learn more(this was admittedly part of my initial motivation for obtaining semicha (rabbinical ordination.)
Numerous times, I have been asked by students if I have finished the Shas, and admitting that I haven’t come close has been a major embarrassment.
Contrast this with the behaviour of truly great Torah scholars, who often minimize the extent of their knowledge, in the spirit of chazal’s permission to tell a “white lie” in three cases, one of them being מסכתא , denying having learnt a particular tractate even if one has done so (Bava Metzia 23b.)
This reminds me of a talk that I merited to hear in person from haGaon Rav Herschel Shachter, שליט”א, someone we all know is familiar with Shas virtually by heart.
It was at our annual shul Siyum hashas(completion of the Talmud) that had been divided amongst members of the community, and Rav Schachter, in his typical fashion, quipped “Its an incredible achievement to finish the Shas. I haven’t finished the Shas yet!”
Even when we are able to be honest about the extent of the knowledge we have accumulated, we often tend to quote primary sources as if we have studied them first hand, when we really only became aware of them because of a database search, one of the modern works on the subject who quotes them, or even a Tosfos quoting a Yerushalmi.
Rav Baruch Epstein of blessed memory, was one of the Torah giants of the previous century and author of the encyclopedic work “Torah Temima”, which links every passuk in the Torah to the corresponding midrashim of Chazal ,a particularly incredible feat in the days prior to computer search engines, and also analyzes them.
He was also the son of one of the greatest halachik authorities and writers of post Shulchan-Aruch times, the famed Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of “Aruch haShulchan.”
In his epic biographic work “Mekor Baruch,” he has an enlightening section entitled “the wisdom of women,” where he tells, amongst others, a story about one of his encounters with his illustrious Aunt Rebbetzin Batya, the wife of his uncle, the famed Netziv of Volozhin.
He tells how in his younger years, he was at the table of his uncle and aunt and was asked to say some words of Torah.
During his talk, he referred to a piece from the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), something usually only studied by older Talmidei Chachamim who have already studied the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) in great depth.
His Aunt asked him, in a not so gentle rebuke, whether he had actually studied the Yerushalmi.
He responded, honestly, that he had not, but had seen it quoted in a Tosfos, or one of the other Rishonim (see the book for a precise account- I am telling this from memory seeing as I do not have it in front of me right now.)
She then asked him how he could have the cheek to quote from the Yerushalmi if he had not studied it directly?
She admonished him that if he only saw the Yerushalmi inside a Tosfos, he should have made it clear that he had quoted it second hand, and had seen it in the Tosfos, and not given the impression that he was a scholar in Yerushalmi.
We see how such a common and innocent failure to disclose the secondary source from where one identified a primary source was taken so seriously in a palace of Torah such as that of the Berlin’s.
Coming back to our daf, the Gemara finally reconciles the contradictory views by shockingly differentiating between honesty related to one’s Torah knowledge, and honesty in business.
There were indeed people left in Jerusalem willing to admit their failure to learn and acquire Torah knowledge, but there was none who was truly honest in business!
This seems at first to be counter intuitive- surely none of use would dream of dishonesty in business, but we certainly could make the error of inflating our own achievements in learning?
Yet based on the conclusion, perhaps when we examine our actions more closely, we will see that behaving completely honestly in business is one of the biggest challenges that we face, and even those of us who would stick fastidiously to the advice of the formidable Rebbetzin Batya, might need to examine our actions in the business sphere more carefully- after all, we do not want to be in the category of those who caused the destruction of our Holy city and Temple, chas veshalom.