Rebbe Elazar’s lessons also taught man discipline in all three categories we have mentioned. “Be diligent in the study of Torah” is directed to dimension of man that relates to the totality of the human being, since the purpose of man’s creation was to strive and toil in Torah study.
Teaching that one needs to “know what to respond to a heretic” is necessary because of notions of heresy, something which emanates from the “nefesh” dimension of man, his emotional and intellectual side.
(We are used to thinking that heresy is the result of an intellectual process. There are a number of Rabbinical sources that teach us that there is also an emotional root to heresy. For example, our Rabbis teach that when the Jews worshipped the Golden Calf, it was an excuse for them to justify their desire for public promiscuity. The desire for certain behaviors can distort the intellectual process, leading to conclusions that are anything but rational. The extreme example of this is a person suffering addictions while denying that it has any negative impact on his life. Our emotions and drives affect many of our theological and intellectual conclusions.)
In analyzing the verse (Bamidbar 15:39) “Do not turn after your hearts and after your eyes,” the Talmud (Berachoth 12b) teaches us: “After your hearts” — this refers to heresy (denial of G-d), as it is written (Tehillim 14:1) “The disgusting one says in his heart ‘There is no G-d’.” (We see that the source of the denial of G-d is in the heart.) “After your eyes” — this refers to fantasies of sin, as it is written (Shoftim 14:3) “And Shimshon said to his father ‘Take her for me, for she is fitting in my eyes’.” (This implies that the source of a man’s desire for a woman is in his eyes.) “That you stray after them” — this refers to thoughts of idol worship, as it is written (Shoftim 8:33) “And they strayed after the Ba’al.”
Knowing how to respond to a heretic is for the discipline of the “nefesh,” not allowing the imperfections of the emotional and intellectual dimension of man to lead him astray. If you have the knowledge and ability to refute a heretic, you can be confident that you won’t allow heretical thoughts to enter your mind and dictate your behavior. It is the “nefesh” that initiates thoughts of heresy (either from an intellectual perspective or due to emotional drives, as we have written). So if man is diligent in neutralizing those thoughts, this is the maximum perfection of his “nefesh,” going beyond the perfection reached through the disciplines of the earlier Tana’im.
Discipline directed towards the “guf,” the physical dimension of man, must counter the natural tendencies of that dimension to resist toil and struggle. (The material dimension of man always seeks out comfort and pleasure, looking for the “path of least resistance.”) Therefore, Rebbe Elazar taught man to be conscious the One “before Whom you toil,” will provide you with reward commensurate with your efforts. This awareness will motivate a person to overcome the natural resistance his physical dimension has towards toil and hard work. This is in line with our earlier explanation, that what is being taught here are tools to fight the “yetzer harah” which tries to seduce a person away from toil in Torah study. One of the solutions to this problem is for him to realize the great reward he will receive for his efforts, thus weakening the resistance to Torah study caused by his natural inclinations. The Tanna is certainly not teaching that one should study Torah to earn the reward. (That would be quite egocentric and self-centered!) Rather he is teaching how to subdue the “yetzer harah” to the extent that it doesn’t even “speak to him.” This enables man to reach the highest level of perfection of his physical dimension.
Each of the Tana’im taught three lessons of discipline directed towards each of the three dimensions we have described, with the lessons of each Tanna elevating man to more refined levels of perfection. Each of the three lessons themselves include many additional components, as we have shown, and there are even deeper truths taught here, which have been hinted to.