All Men are Created Equal, Part I
Chapter 4, Mishna 15(a)
"Rabbi Elazar ben (son of) Shamua said: The honor of your student should be
as dear to you as your own; the honor of your colleague should be as the
fear of your [Torah] teacher; and the fear of your teacher should be as the
fear of Heaven."
At its simplest level, our mishna appears to be saying that we should always
increment by one when relating to others. Treat a Torah teacher, colleague
or student one notch higher than he or she actually deserves.
And this would seem very appropriate practical advice: We often treat the
people we know poorly enough that exaggerating the honor due to them will
actually just about balance things out. Rather than berating a student for
interrupting, spacing out, or holding up the class, imagine that he or she
is an equal and treat him as such. Rather than attempting to best a
colleague by showing your explanation of the Talmud to be better, humbly and
respectfully hear out his opinion. And finally, avoid becoming too
comfortable and familiar with your teacher, as well as questioning or
doubting everything he says. Imagine that he is the link between yourself
and G-d (as he is). His speech is the voice of G-d, passed from teacher to
student in an unbroken transmission since the Revelation at Sinai.
The above is certainly true. We -- today in particular -- are not in the
habit of showing deference towards others -- not friends, not family, and
certainly not political leaders (who are usually fair game in a society
which values free speech far above another man's career). And there is no
question that the words of the Sages can and should be understood on many
levels, from the simplest to the most profound.
However, there is something decidedly unsatisfying about all of this. Is
this whole law based upon imagination? Are we saying that really they are
not due that degree of respect, yet we should accord it anyway so that we do
not undermine their honor? Are we being told to *pretend* -- to practice
something we know deep down is really not deserved?
Another observation is that our mishna only refers to one's own student,
colleague or teacher. Apparently, someone else's student is just a student.
Likewise, an equal or rabbi should be accorded the honor due to him (which
is appreciable), but not more than his position entitles. Nowhere (that this
writer can think of) do the Sages recommend we exaggerate their honor beyond
what is just. So clearly our mishna is not just recommending a safety valve.
If so, why is the obligation so much stronger when it comes to one's own
The following historical incident is recorded in the Talmud (Yevamos 62b).
The Mishnaic sage, R. Akiva, one of the greatest scholars and teachers known
to Israel, was mentor to 24,000 students. All of them perished in a short
period of time (between Passover and Shavuos (the Feast of Weeks)) as a
result of epidemic because, as the Talmud explains, "They did not have
proper respect for one another." The world was desolate until R. Akiva moved
to the south of Israel and taught five new students. (Important note: One of
the students was R. Elazar ben Shamua, author of our mishna.) This small
cadre singlehandedly sustained the Torah during that dark period.
The story is, of course, tragic, but it also presents a great difficulty. R.
Akiva personally was a great proponent as well as living example of
loving-kindness. It was he who commented on the verse "Love your fellow as
yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), "This is a great principle of the Torah" (Sifra
there). Why of all people were his students the ones to fall short in this
quality? Needless to say, students of such a great man were undoubtedly
judged by very high standards, but what was it about his own love of others
that did not carry over to his students?
Yet another curiosity is that R. Akiva, in spite of the inspirational nature
of his message, was challenged by a naysayer. Now who could argue with "Love
your fellow?" It's so universal, so politically correct, so fashionable, so
"in". Even if we don't necessarily *act* with love to all, who could
possibly not even subscribe to the message?
It was R. Akiva's own colleague, Ben (son of) Zoma. He challenged R. Akiva's
principle on the following grounds. "Love your fellow" does not say to love
unconditionally, it says to love others *as yourself*. The implication is
that we love ourselves first, and that through that love and value we place
in ourselves, we come to love others as well.
This, challenged Ben Zoma, is hardly the ideal. Placing ourselves first is
still a form of viewing the world through our own lenses. I am the center of
my own universe. I instinctively feel I am special and important, and
through that I recognize that other beings too are valuable in their own
way. Not everyone will scale the second height after the first. In fact, the
first might *deter* him from scaling the second. We may become so proud and
full of ourselves that we never look beyond and see greatness in others. How
does one see his or her own uniqueness without becoming self-centered but
rather using it as a means of seeing the majesty of all humankind?
Ben Zoma therefore advanced a different principle, based upon Genesis 5:1:
"In the image of G-d did He fashion him (i.e., man)." All human beings are
created in G-d's image. We all possess a godly soul, capable of independent
thought and action, and of scaling inspirational heights. The focus is no
longer on self: I do not love others *like myself*. Every human being is
precious and unique; no one has greater claim to divinity or closeness to
G-d. All are equal in the eyes of the L-rd.
(A fully Jewish concept, later to be immortalized -- in breathtaking form --
in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It's actually important for us to
realize that as inspiring as "All men are created equal" sounds, it can
hardly mean we are all *actually* equal. G-d has certainly doled out
different skills and abilities to different races and to different people
(at the risk of political incorrectness), and let's face it, some people are
just more talented and more qualified to wield power than others.
Rather, the true meaning that all men are equal (as I once heard R. Noach
Weinberg OBM (http://www.aish.com/rn/) put it) is that we all have the same
potential for greatness. We can all come equally close to G-d -- or stray
equally far away. No one is born great or has the monopoly on G-d's
attention or good graces. As Maimonides puts it (Laws of Repentance 5:2;
http://www.torah.org/learning/mlife/LOR5-2.html), every single one of us can
be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam. There is no
predestination. Our entire fates are in our own hands. We can achieve the
ultimate closeness and we alone bear the blame if we fall short.)
Each and every one of us, in spite of differences, faults and imperfections,
is in the image of G-d. We all contain eternal souls of infinite potential
and possibilities. I am great, and my greatness is unique, yet that which
can be said of me can and must be said of all G-d's creations. Through this,
we can recognize our own greatness and divinity, yet see the same in every
member of humankind.
Hmm.... Next is to return to R. Akiva's position and suggest -- based on the
distinction between him and Ben Zoma -- why it did not carry on to his
students. But hold that thought -- can't overdo it in one week (my past
track record aside). Please stay tuned!
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.