All Men are Created Equal, Part I
Chapter 4, Mishna 15(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
The previous edition of this class (May, 2005) was sent out shortly after
the passing of my beloved nephew, Aharon Elimelech ben HaRav Ben- Tsion
Eliezer, a wonderful young man who was taken from us just as he began to
flower. As I wrote at the time, which tragically is equally true today,
words cannot express the loss felt by the family over his departure. We are
only again reminded that the L-rd's ways are mysterious, and that it is not
always for us to understand, only to be silent and accept. I dedicate this
edition of this class to his memory as well. May his memory be a merit to
his family and to all of Israel.
"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 seems 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 be
according them the honor they deserve. 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 (he is, actually). 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 in my mind 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 intellectually 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
-- exaggerating their respect in order to insure it is notundervalued. 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 (Pentecost)) 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
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 they *his* students 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 nay sayer. Now who could argue with
"Love your fellow?" (What kind of antisocial, politically-incorrect,
chauvinist would adopt such a platform?) 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 may 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 G-dly 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 people (at the risk of political
incorrectness), and let's face it, some people are just more talented and
even more qualified to wield power than others. Rather, the true meaning
that all men are equal (as I once heard R. Noach Weinberg OBM (www.aish.com)
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), 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.
Hmmm.... 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.