As Yosef sent his brothers from Egypt to Canaan in order to bring their father and their families to Egypt, he warned, “Al tirgezu ba-darekh” (45:24) – an ambiguous expression that has been interpreted in several different ways. The Gemara in Masekhet Ta’anit (10b) explains this warning to mean that the brothers should not engage in halakhic discussion and deliberation. Although it is proper to speak in Torah matters during travel, the Gemara clarifies, one should not delve deeply and intensively engage in complex, intricate subjects. And this is the warning expressed by Yosef to his brothers before they traveled.
Rashi explains that intensive study is improper during travel because of the concern that the traveler might not sufficiently focus on his journey, and he would then be endangering himself. Rabbenu Gershom, however, explains the Gemara’s teaching much differently. He writes that when students engage in difficult and complex matters, they are likely to end up debating the various issues that arise. During travel, when the students are in public view, engaging in debates is inappropriate, as onlookers will mistakenly assume that they are fighting out of personal animus. Therefore, travelers should study light material that does not lend itself to vigorous debate, so as to avoid giving the impression of bitter confrontation and conflict.
Rabbenu Gershom’s reading of the Gemara reminds us that while debate and argumentation is endemic to the process of learning and applying the Torah, we must do what we can to avoid projecting an image of pettiness and internecine hostility. Our intense debates and disputes over Jewish teaching and practice should take place within the walls of the beit midrash, within the “privacy” of our institutions and communities, and not publicly. As Rabbenu Gershom wrote, we must not give the mistaken impression that we engage in personal and petty attacks. Therefore, we must, to whatever extent possible, keep our legitimate debates within our own quarters, and not engage in disputes publicly and thus appear argumentative and belligerent. As the Gemara teaches in Masekhet Kiddushin (30b), “Even a father and son…who are involved in Torah in the same gate become enemies of one another, but they do not leave from there until they [once again] love each other.” Within the confines of the beit midrash, among ourselves, we can engage in intense debate with the understanding that we respect and admire one another as a father and son, even as we argue as “enemies.” Once we leave the beit midrash, however, and enter the public view, we must end the debate and put our mutual love and appreciation on full display, so that we make it clear to all who see us that despite our disagreements, we ultimately respect, love and are fully committed to one another.