Skip to main content

Ignorance, Arrogance and the Wisdom That Edifies

Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #2: Ignorance, Arrogance and the Wisdom That Edifies

By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Rava says: "'It (the Torah) is not in heaven [nor is it over the sea]' (Devarim 30:12): You will not find Torah in a person who raises himself above it like the heavens, and you will not find Torah in a person who expands himself upon it like the ocean."

Rav Yochanan says: "'It is not in heaven' (Devarim 30:12): You will not find Torah among the arrogant." (Eruvin 55a)

Rav Shmuel Edels, the Maharsha, locates two different types of arrogance in Rava's warning. The first person eschews the need for a teacher, mistakenly raising himself above the real need for guidance in learning. The second type assumes that having a teacher suffices in and of itself. A student blessed with an outstanding teacher may haughtily assume superiority over others, merely by virtue of the teacher's ability. This student arrogates for himself an expanse of knowledge, without realizing that true expansiveness in learning depends upon the hard-fought efforts of the student, irrespective of the teacher's excellence. Rava instructs us that both dispensing with the need for a teacher, and relying solely upon the teacher, get in the way of a good education. 

The Rif (Rav Yeshayahu Pinto, cited in the Ein Yaakov), argues that Rava and Rav Yochanan do not state the identical point. Rava refers to a person's relationship to the material studied, while Rav Yochanan refers to a person's relationship to others.

For Rava, haughtiness towards the material can get in the way of knowledge. The intense desire to criticize a text blocks appreciation and understanding of that text. Further, as the Rif points out, the proud student may consider more basic material beneath him, and focus attention solely on more esoteric knowledge. Such a student may never address fundamental gaps in his knowledge. For example, the aspiring kabbalist may never set aside the time to solidify understanding of the basic storyline of Chumash. I have encountered several students more interested in delving into mystical, esoteric knowledge than in setting aside time to finding out more about the life story of Moshe Rabbenu.

For Rav Yochanan, it is the social blowhard who remains ensconced in ignorance. Such a person will refuse to learn from others, and refuse to dedicate the time needed for studying and reviewing the material. The arrogance that generates more interest in presenting a learned veneer than in actual learning renders this person unable to ever admit publicly to not knowing something. For this latter type, the desire to show that wisdom comes easily prevents it from coming altogether.

Rav Zadok Ha-kohen (Divrei Soferim 15) offers another perspective on the incommensurability of wisdom and arrogance. The Zohar says that a sign of Bilaam's ignorance is that he praised himself. Rav Zadok points out that as Bilaam actually seems to be quite knowledgeable, the Zohar refers to Bilaam's lack of internalized knowledge. When knowledge fails to penetrate into the deeper recesses of the human personality, arrogance results.

I believe that Rav Zadok offers us a profound psychological insight. If a person's knowledge impacts positively upon the world, or allows him to become more ethically sensitive or spiritually alive, then that knowledge has found a worthy home. The person in turn, finds satisfaction with his learning. If, on the other hand, a person's knowledge has no impact upon the world, or upon his personality, then the knowledge finds no expression and the person wonders what the years of study have produced. At that point, the only thing left to do with one's knowledge is to brag about it. Envision two brilliant academics, one who goes about his or her work with quiet dignity, and the other who constantly attempts to show off his or her knowledge. Rav Zadok's insight lies at the root of the distinction in their behavior.

It emerges that arrogance can be both the cause and the effect of ignorance. Arrogance towards the material, or towards teachers and peers, prevents the accumulation of knowledge. At the same time, arrogance also reveals that the knowledge accumulated has failed to impact on the knower. The Talmud refers to such knowledge as "from the mouth and outward" (Sanhedrin 106b). For Rav Zadok, that image conveys both the lack of internalization of knowledge, and the need to brag about it.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!