All Men are Created Equal, Part II
Chapter 4, Mishna 15(b)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"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."
Last week we began discussing this mishna, and we posed two questions: (1)
Is our mishna asking us to play make-believe -- to inflate the honor of our
associates knowing it is beyond what they truly deserve? (2) If we are being
asked to exaggerate simply so we don't underrate, why does this apply to
one's own associates more so than any other Torah teacher, colleague or student?
We continued with the historical account of the death of the students of R.
Akiva -- the teacher of our mishna's author -- on account of not showing
proper respect for one another. To this we asked why of all people were they
the students of R. Akiva -- great proponent of "Love your fellow as
yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) -- to fall short in such an area.
Finally, we contrasted R. Akiva's principle of "Love your fellow" with that
of his colleague Ben (son of) Zoma: All human beings are created in the
image of G-d (based on Genesis 5:1). Whereas R. Akiva's principle begins
with love of self -- and only then (hopefully) concludes with love of all,
Ben Zoma's both begins and ends with the love of the entire human race.
As we left off, it appeared that R. Akiva's principle compared unfavorably
to Ben Zoma's. Focusing first on yourself may engender a form of
self-centeredness. If I'm so great, I may recognize the same in others -- or
I may become so full of myself as to have no patience for and interest in
them. A narcissistic love of self may inhibit rather than foster love of others.
We have all seen interviews of people of great talent and/or accomplishment.
They are often so full of themselves; they go on and on about their careers,
their origins, what inspired them, etc. as if no one could possibly be
interested in anything else. Now if we had the slightest conception of our
*own* G-d-given greatness, we too might fall into the same trap -- leaving
little room for the rest of mankind. This, as we explained, was Ben Zoma's
basis for disputing R. Akiva.
We now approach this issue from R. Akiva's perspective -- in order to
explain why he preferred his approach over Ben Zoma's. Why begin with loving
The answer is that human beings feel an instinctive love for and attachment
to themselves. It is human nature to root for and never give up on ourselves
-- nor our natural extensions, our children -- far beyond logic and
reasonable expectations. We love and accept ourselves in spite of a lot of
faults -- often ones we can't stand in others. Our self-love is irrational;
it blinds us. And when one is in love, he can overlook many annoyances, bad
habits and foibles.
This, according to R. Akiva, is what we must project onto others. If we
begin as Ben Zoma with love of all, we will view mankind far too
objectively. Do they really deserve such unconditional love? What of all
their faults? What of their annoying habits, shortcomings, cultural
differences, etc.? However, if we begin with our own natural love of self,
we will be capable of loving others as they truly deserve. For we may
recognize that our own self-love stems from something so much deeper: the
recognition that we possess a divine soul, one naturally sacred and
inherently beautiful. And only then can we begin to love others in the same
intense and nonjudgmental manner G-d Himself loves us.
So R. Akiva had a point -- and a grand one. We will often -- always, in fact
-- find in the debates of great Torah scholars that neither opinion can be
considered "wrong" -- even if Jewish law often must follow one opinion
alone. As the Talmud puts it, "These and these are the words of the living
G-d" (Gittin 6b). Both opinions are valid and are based upon relevant,
vibrant Torah truths ("of the living G-d"). And each is correct and
applicable in its proper context.
Similarly, in our context R. Akiva's position is correct and relevant.
Self-love is an excellent starting point to achieving universal love.
Nevertheless, there is one context in which it is potentially dangerous,
very much so: in the study hall. Torah study does not merely have the
potential to make one feel good about him- or herself. It makes him feel
great about -- and full of -- himself. When a person studies and begins to
understand the Torah, there is a feeling of vastness and grandeur. He has
attached himself to an infinite body of wisdom; he experiences a
greater-than-life sensation. He encounters the grandness of the Torah -- the
word of G-d -- which he himself can understand, interpret and expound. It
makes him feel different, greater. He is overwhelmed, he is enthused, he is
exhilarated, and quite likely he is very, very swellheaded.
This can be particularly true with the beginner. We often find the greatest
zeal, exactitude -- and arrogance -- in younger students who know so much
less. To the new student, the world is far more black and white -- and often
if you're not "in" ("black" in many circles ;-), there's little room for
shades of gray. Such people often feel morally and intellectually qualified
to criticize and preach to the unlearned masses who they themselves have not
progressed so far beyond. This is not entirely due to immaturity or lack of
knowledge. It is true in part because the student has acquired that
overwhelming sense of grandness and infinity, but has not yet tempered it
with the more mature understanding of the Torah and of man.
There's an ironic passage in the Talmud I like to quote regarding this. It
states that when a student of the scholars gets angry, "it is the Torah
which heats him up" (Ta'anis 4a). This sounds at first like a very noble
appraisal: His anger is not his own; he is championing G-d's cause.
The Talmudic commentator Rashi, however, understands it somewhat more
realistically and unsentimentally: We are not dealing with a scholar but a
student of scholars. He feels very grand due to his new-found knowledge.
Because of this, he takes things much more to heart -- and gets far more
carried away. And, concludes Rashi, we must be patient and put up with him
till he outgrows it. ;-)
This, we may suggest, caused the downfall of R. Akiva's students. Beginning
with love of self simply does not work in the competitive world of the
yeshiva (Torah academy). Loving myself, the Torah scholar, is no pathway
towards universal love. It will cause quite the opposite. It will create
intellectual rifts of conflict and misunderstanding. I will ever be surer of
my own convictions and less patient of those who disagree. The most subtle
and minuscule issues of belief and practice -- which to the layman appear
ridiculously inconsequential -- will to great scholars and theologians be
matters of utmost significance -- over which they will viciously fight to
the death. Someone who doesn't dress, act or think just as I do is the most
abominable of apostates, doomed to utter and eternal damnation.
As a result, R. Elazar, a later student of R. Akiva and author of our
mishna, formulated a different principle. When it comes to our Torah
colleagues, we must minimize ourselves -- almost taking ourselves out of the
picture entirely. It is not so much that we exaggerate the worth of others,
but that we remove ourselves from the equation, and by so doing increment
their relative worth by one. If we take into consideration our own
relationship with the Torah we may feel too good about ourselves to give our
associates the respect they deserve. Someone very wrapped up in and proud of
his own achievements may not feel the same pride in his student's or
colleague's Torah thoughts. He may consider them a threat -- infringing upon
his own sense of self-worth. His feelings of grandness stem from his own
special relationship with the Torah, the unique set of insights and
explanations he has originated. The accomplishments of anyone else may be
perceived more as a threat than an indication that others too can and do
achieve greatness through the Torah.
This is the self-effacing approach suggested by our mishna. We may strive
and exert ourselves in our quest for growth in Torah, but in the final
analysis we must see ourselves as passive recipients of G-d's great gift of
wisdom. The Talmud states that the Torah remains with one who makes himself
as nothing (Sotah 21b). Only one who is a nothing can become a something.
(Makes sense, doesn't it? ;-) Such a person does not attempt to inflate
himself by swallowing up the infinity of Torah. He humbles himself, attaches
himself to G-d's Torah, and by so doing merits to be recipient, bearer and
teacher of G-d's living Torah.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.