Shiur #02: Chapter Two

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers


Shiur #02: Chapter Two

Chapter 2, Mishna 8 introduces Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, a student of both Hillel and Shamai. He asserts that Torah study should not become a source of pride or self-satisfaction: "al tachazik tova le-atzmekha." In general, the danger of Torah accomplishments generating vanity or egotism is quite acute and campaigned against vigorously by Chazal. The mountain of Sinai was chosen for the delivery of Torah due to its unassuming self-effacement. Likewise, one of the reasons why Torah is likened to water is that it descends from higher realms (in the instance of water, from mountains; in the instance of Torah, from the heavens) to the lowest possible point (in the case of water, to valleys). Rabbi Yochanan's statement certainly addresses this oft-discussed danger.

However, Rabbi Yochanan's concerns appear to be more than just moral; they carry an existential element, as well. Success in Torah study should not be considered 'heroic' or 'extraordinary.' Rather, it constitutes a basic requirement and, in fact, the basic objective of being created in the first place: "ki le-kakh notzarta." This declaration highlights a fundamental paradox about our perspective on Torah accomplishments. When reciting a siyum we exclaim, "We thank You, Hashem, for placing our lot within the Torah community (mi-yoshvei beit ha-midrash) and not within those who are idle and waste their opportunities." We are certainly expected to feel an overwhelming sense of mission regarding Talmud Torah and healthy pride in our Torah achievements. The gemara in Yoma (72) describes three categories of nobility, emphasizing that the nobility of Torah study surpasses any other varieties (keter Torah ola al gabeihen). In fact, the great yeshiva of Slobodka (which spurred the second generation of the Mussar movement) highlighted 'Torah pride' as the most essential trait towards assuring successful religious development. A Torah individual should properly value his uncommon and exceptional accomplishments, and this recognition should sensitize him against forfeiting that status by mindless descent into less noble behavior.

Rabbi Yochanan merely introduces a self-corrective mechanism into our attitudes pertaining to Torah study. If Torah commitment is cast as merely 'heroic' or too remarkable, we may perhaps lessen our resolve or relax our discipline. We may cast religious success in a manner which ignores our basic Torah duty, viewing Torah study as laudable, but not universally binding. Rabbi Yochanan therefore rearranges our value system. Torah study – for some with greater indulgence, for some with lesser (echad ha-marbeh ve-echad ha-mam'it - see Berakhot 5b) – is a primary obligation, and its utter neglect, a glaring flaw in our religious identity.

In addition, Rabbi Yochanan's statement provokes an important theological/historical question. Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (see Berakhot 35b) already debated the relative merits of a 'Torah–exclusive' lifestyle versus a 'Torah-centric' one. Should man 'plow during the plowing season, sow during the sowing season and harvest during the harvest season,' even though this will ultimately diminish his availability for Torah study? Or, as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai recommended, should one unconditionally devote his time to Torah study, trusting that "their [broader] duties will be attended to by others"? Taken in a broader context, should we narrowly invest our resources in uncovering the majesty of Torah, or should we also invest in broader areas, which may be deemed 'tikun ha-olam' (professional advancement, individual and communal welfare, national obligations, etc.)? Clearly, various contemporary communities adopt very differing policies in this regard.

Rabbi Yochanan's statement may be taken to mean that fundamentally, man is created to study God's Torah; ideally, this is the primary purpose for which he was formed. To be sure, the aforementioned debate is still relevant, since we no longer inhabit an ideal world. Given our fallen state, in which we must earn a living to support a family, repair a flawed world, alleviate suffering, redeem history, and so on, we are still faced with the dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. However, even if we adopt Rabbi Yishmael's stance and attend to broader missions, we mustn't ignore Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai's reminder that, ideally, in a perfected world in no need of 'tikkun,' we were meant to study Torah only.

The Mishna proceeds to list Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai's five disciples: Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanus, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh. Aware of their respective talents, Rabbi Yochanan, their mentor, would apply various nicknames. Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanus was referred to as an 'insulated water cistern which does not squander even a drop'; Rabbi Shimon was referred to as a 'fearer of sin'; while Rabbi Yossi was named a 'chasid.' This intriguing listing showcases three different messages:

1. Their emotional investment in Torah study in particular, and religious behavior in general, was so powerful that they were nicknamed based upon their respective religious achievements. It is instructive to inspect the nicknames we take or apply to others. Sadly, they generally have little to do with religious experience and more to do with physical features, athletic talent, or other relatively trivial qualities. Religious success is in part directly correspondent to the degree of passion and intensity which we generate. If religion consumes our identity to the point that it influences our naming patters, it is apt to be more solidly anchored to our identity.

2. Rabbi Yochanan was able to appreciate and cultivate differences in his students. He did not hold up one mold or one model of excellence, but rather appreciated his students' disparate personalities and perhaps backgrounds. The first rule of education – of students or children – is the ability to nurture healthy differences while instilling universal values. A school principal once relayed to me the following anecdote. Most of his teachers would report to him about their class in the following fashion: "He is #1 in the class, he is #2 in the class, etc." The most impressive teacher would report as follows: "He possesses extraordinary diligence, while he displays uncommon compassion, while he excels academically, etc." Taking a cue from Rabbi Yochanan, this latter teacher did not attempt to impose stifling conformity or haunt his students by forcing them to mimic the standards of others. Instead, he tolerated, and, probably, cultivated, diversity.

3. The final message must be understood in light of who these students were. They were not High School children, but the outstanding students of the gadol ha-dor, who themselves advanced to illustrious careers as great Torah scholars. Instead of homogenizing them into one profile and asserting their unqualified excellence in every detail of religious life, the Mishna acknowledges their unique strengths in particular areas – and, by inference, their lesser abilities in other areas. To be sure, people of such prominence exhibited general religious excellence in all major areas of Avodat Hashem. However, clearly their abilities and achievements in particular areas were far more surpassing than in other areas. Too often, in glorifying religious examples, we inflate their personalities by asserting sweeping accomplishments to individuals who may not have excelled in those areas. Aside from dishonesty, this 'banalization' blurs their true feats and makes them less human, and therefore less instructive and inspiring to the rest of us.