Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received (the tradition) from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say: If you have learned a large amount of Torah, don’t hold yourself in high regard, since it was for this purpose that you were created.
Why is the lesson of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai taught after the lessons of Rebbe and Rabban Gamliel, even though he lived before them?
Furthermore, why is it important to know that he received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai? We wrote in the first chapter that the reason the transmission process was only traced until Hillel and Shammai was because of the deterioration in the quality of the transmission. Why is it relevant here?
The chapter opened with the lesson of Rebbe on the straight path that a person should choose. It was therefore appropriate to include with it Rabban Yochanan be Zakkai’s question to his students (in the following Mishna) about the path to which a person should attach himself. But the Tanna wanted to follow Rebbe’s lesson with that of his son, Rabban Gamliel. And Hillel’s lesson on not separating from the community was connected to Rabban Gamliel’s lesson about involvement in communal matters, so it came next. Now we return to the subject that was introduced by Rebbe, paths a man should choose.
There were other reasons for not including this Mishna in the first chapter, even though chronologically it should have followed the lessons of Hillel and Shammai. The lessons in the first chapter were all written very concisely [while this lesson is of a more lengthy and complex nature]. Additionally, the lessons of the first chapter were all taught by the leaders of each generation. This lesson includes the responses of Rabban Yochanan be Zakkai’s students, something which would not have been appropriate for the first chapter.
So the Tanna opened with the lesson of Rebbe, followed by one from his son, then returned to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was a student of Hillel and Shammai. Since the Tanna wanted to indicate a return to the chain of transmission, he inserted a lesson from Hillel before one from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (who received the tradition from Hillel). This link in the transmission chain was not included in the original chronology to indicate that the quality of the ability of the students to receive the tradition was deteriorating in relation to that of earlier generations. The act of receiving is not mentioned after this, due to that continued deterioration.
(The Maharal continues explores other reasons why the Tanna deviated from the chronological order, as well as not including sons who received the tradition from their fathers. I have abridged his explanations, which would be difficult to follow in this forum. But it should be noted that the Maharal spends much space and effort dealing with the problem of the seeming haphazard ordering of the Mishnayoth. His point is to show that, in fact, no element in Chazal is haphazard or coincidental, but written with precision and to communicate a specific message. Even the order of the Mishnayoth communicates information. It is our job to delve deeply to uncover the many layers of meaning embedded in the teachings of Chazal. If we understand it deeply enough, we will see the imperative nature of the way the Mishnayoth are written.)
“If you have learned a large amount of Torah, don’t hold yourself in too high regard.” A person shouldn’t feel that learning a large amount of Torah is an act of “chassidut” (piety). “Chassidut” means that the person has done something which is not required of him (as we have explained a number of times in earlier shiurim), which is not true in this situation. A person’s initial creation was in order that he be able to learn Torah (Torah being the wisdom of G-d’s will). Everything that was brought into being by G-d was created through the dimension of “din,” having a compelling element to its creation. This is reflected in the verse (Koheleth 3:14) “For all that G-d has made will be forever; nothing should be added to it, and nothing detracted.” This implies that He created things exactly as the must be, which is “din.” In the creation process, the name “Elokim” is used, a name of G-d which reflects his characteristic of “din,” strict justice, where every addition or subtraction would be a deviation from true “din.”
Our Tanna is teaching us that one who learns Torah should not feel that he has done anything beyond what is required of him by the mere fact of his creation. Just as the nature of man’s existence requires that he eat and drink, his true nature also requires that he toil in Torah study. (A person wouldn’t pat himself on the back because he ate sufficent food to enable him to functin. It is a normal and innate activity. Learning Torah every day should be viewed as being just as natural.)
This is illustrated in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 99b): Rebbi Elazar said “A person is created to toil, as it is written (Iyov 5:7) ‘Man is born to toil.’ But I don’t know whether it is for the toil of the mouth or toil of [physical] labor. When it says (Mishlei 16:26) ‘A person who toils, toils for himself; his mouth forces the toil” it shows that it is for the toil of the mouth [that he was created]. But I still do not know whether it [the toil of the mouth] refers to the toil of Torah or to the toil of talking. When it says (Joshua 1:8) “This book of the Torah will not move from your mouth” it shows that it is for the toil of Torah [that man has been created].”
The explanation of the above is as follows. It is not possible that man was created for rest and tranquility. Only something in a state of perfection can truly be at rest, since its goals and needs have reached fulfillment. It has become complete, which allows it to rest. A human being never attains perfection, so he can never be at rest. He is always in motion, seeking and striving to attain that (ever elusive) perfection. Even as man is actualizing elements of his potential, he can never find himself at rest, for he can never reach complete perfection.
(Next class, we will continue with Maharal’s interpretation of the above Gemara.)