Pirkei Avot Chapter 1: Mishna 4 - Dust: Literal or Figurative?
Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers
Shiur 19: Dust of their Feet
by Rav Moshe Taragin
The fourth Mishna in the first perek cites three ideas jointly authored by Yossi Ben Yo'ezer from Tzereida and Yossi ben Yochanan from Yerushalayim. As the Gemara in Chagiga (16b) records, the former served as the Nassi while the latter was the head of Beit Din. The Gemara reports that after their tenures many disputes erupted. Evidently, until their period, the Mesora had been more homogenous; even if differences of opinion existed, the decisive halakhic position was unanimous.
A Midrash records a fascinating story about an otherwise little known Tanna: Yossi ben Yo'ezer. A nephew of his, Yakum ish Tzerorot, violated Shabbat in public fashion by riding upon an impressive-looking Greek horse. This nephew passed by Rabbi Yossi (a different Rabbi Yossi) who was being led by horse toward his execution. Astonished by the contrast between the honor being shown a sinner and the persecution being shown a saint, Yakum asked Rabbi Yossi to justify this inequity. Rabbi Yossi responded that by witnessing the prosperity of the wicked in this world we can only imagine the compounded reward which the pious will merit in the next life. Similarly, by witnessing the suffering of the righteous in our world we can perhaps extrapolate the anguish of the wicked in the next world. Basically, Rabbi Yossi responded with the conventional 'take' on deferred reward and punishment, a lesson which was accented by their similar but very different circumstances. Inspired by the response and implicit rebuke of Rabbi Yossi, Yakum the sinner repented for his misdeeds, promptly simulating the four forms of Beit Din-administered death sentences as he took his own life. His uncle, while asleep, witnessed Yakum's coffin ascend to Heaven and exclaimed that in an instant of piety his nephew had preceded him to Heaven.
The Mishna itself lists a series of three statements authored by the two 'Yossis' - all of which speak to our relationship with Torah scholars. The first clause is fairly straightforward, as it encourages us to host talmidei chakhamim and Torah assemblies. The final phrase is also easily understood, in urging the intake of Torah knowledge, just as a thirsty person would drink refreshing water. A bit more intriguing is the middle phrase which demands that we dirty ourselves in the dust at the feet of Torah scholars. Classically, this image has been interpreted in multiple manners.
The most obvious and literal meaning of this phrase is based upon an outdated method of Torah study. Several commentators to the Mishna allude to the fact that students would sit at the feet of their Rebbe when studying Torah. This arrangement was adopted because of a lack of suitable seating or, and perhaps additionally to, demonstrate reverence toward Torah teachers. Either way, by encouraging us to sit as the feet of teachers, the Mishna is effectively urging us to study Torah with them. As such the phrase should not be taken as a metaphor, but as a literal description.
In a broader sense by invoking the image of 'rolling in their dust' the Mishna is also expecting humility on the part of the student. Awed by his Teacher's commitment to Torah, the student should approach with respect and deference. This sense is reinforced by the comments of Avot de-Rabbi Natan to this Mishna: "When a student enters the Beit Midrash he should not convince himself that he has no need of a Rebbe. He should sit in front of one. Consequently, he should not sit on an even level with the Rebbe, but in front of him ON THE GROUND accepting his words with fear and awe as Torah was initially delivered from Har Sinai." It is quite easy to see how Avot de-Rabbi Natan saw in this image a metaphor for the humility which a student should sense in the presence of his Rebbe. As a parallel Gemara in Megilla (21a)asserts, the awe should be patterned after, and also stems from, the initial delivery of Torah at Sinai. By recreating this sensation during every learning experience, the talmid retains the sense of Torah's Divine origins.
Rabbeinu Ovadia Mi-Bartenura locates a third connotation of this phrase. He abstracts the phrase to refer to the practice of accompanying Torah personalities even in areas beyond the Beit Midrash. Walking in their dust - in this sense means - to follow their footsteps as dust is scattered in the wake of someone walking. By extension, 'walking' conjures up a sense of departing the narrow confines of the study hall to attend to peripheral affairs. Accompanying Torah personalities as they execute daily activities affords the opportunity to witness Torah applied to the 'real world.' It allows us the opportunity to view personality traits and general behavior of a Talmid Chakham aspects which are often not clearly displayed in the context of formal study. In addition, these lessons delivered in the 'study hall of life' are suitable even for those whose scant Torah exposure renders them incapable of appreciating scholarly Torah information.
Finally, a completely different idea was developed by Rav Chayim Volozin - in Ru'ach Chayim. He detects in the Hebrew term 'mitavak' a military theme. He draws this denotation from Bereishit 32:25 where Ya'akov and the angel wrestle. While physically engaging with a foe each party is dirtied thus warranting the term lei'avek - to wrestle or raise dirt and be sullied. Ironically, in this context, we are encouraged to 'battle' our teachers in the pursuit of Torah truth. Despite the great respect we afford Torah personalities, and despite the deference we show toward their Torah positions, if convinced that Torah truth lies elsewhere, we are commissioned to pursue it respectfully, but aggressively. The Gemara in Kiddushin (30b) likens a student and his Rebbe studying Torah to enemies warring with each other. It demands that this confrontation end in love and respect, but it charges the student with campaigning for Torah knowledge even if forced to disagree and battle with his Rebbe. When penning a sefer in defense of the Ri"f against the attacks of the Ba'al Hama'or, the Ramban chose the name 'Milchamot Hashem' or 'holy war' to capture the battle he was about to commence in defense of Torah veracity. Much of the language he employs in reference to the Ba'al Hama'or reflects this sacred-militant attitude. To the casual observer derogatory comments hurled at the Ba'al Hama'or may seem like petty personal attacks. To the person who appreciates the eternal truth of Torah and who cares about the decoding of this truth, the zeal merely reflects the passion and commitment which the Ramban felt toward this mission.