Not Without a Fight
Chapter 6, Mishna 6
"Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is
acquired with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the
Torah is acquired with 48 ways. These are: ... (46) making one's teacher
wiser, (47) precisely quoting what one has heard..."
This week's first quality, "making one's teacher wiser," means that the
Torah student sharpens his teacher's skills. This is because the good
student opposes his teacher with a steady barrage of questions and
challenges, most trivial and piddling, but occasionally one profound and
challenging. The teacher is thus forced to explain and re-explain the Torah
in the manner his students can best appreciate -- to transform his personal
perspectives on Torah wisdom into knowledge accessible to all. And this is
the result of the students' incessant prodding and probing. We learned
earlier, "A bashful person cannot learn" (2:6).
The true Torah student sincerely wants to makes sense of the Torah -- and is
willing to shame himself in his drive to achieve this goal.
(How often do we at Torah.org receive questions with the intro: "I really
should know this already, but..." or "I'm sure this is a stupid question,
but..."? Rather than being amused at my students' inexperience and naivete,
I find no greater joy than seeing a student sincerely seeking, who is more
concerned with finding truth than his own "looking stupid." I personally
take much greater satisfaction knowing I have inspired one student to ask
for himself than simply knowing I have x thousand students passively reading
my classes. (OK, with my schedule it takes me a good while to find the time
to answer, but the questions I like.))
The difficulty of transmitting Torah from teacher to student is not merely a
matter of pesky questions on the part of the students. There is a more
profound dilemma here. No two individuals are alike. Each one has his or her
own perspectives on life and wisdom -- and so will relate to the Torah just
a little bit differently. Spanning the gap from teacher to student requires
far more than the transmission of knowledge, repeating texts and cases
verbatim. It requires explaining the Torah, the possession of the teacher,
and making it the possession of the student. The Torah must now make sense
to *me*, the student -- and that is a different feat for every single Jew.
Thus, the good student will constantly aggravate his rabbi with questions --
some hardly sensible to his exasperated teacher -- attempting to translate
his teacher's teachings into lessons he can relate to himself. The Talmud
writes that the student who manages to get his teacher angry at him (and who
of course humbly accepts his teacher's rebuke) will ultimately achieve
greatness in Torah (see Brachos 63b). Paradoxically, at that point -- when
your teacher can take you no longer -- you have probably made the Torah your
own and are ready to move on.
There is a difficulty with this, however. We are on the 46th of the 48 Ways.
As we've explained in past classes, the 48 Ways form a progression. The
final qualities reflect the highest achievements the most advanced scholar
realizes. This "way" however seems a throwback to some of the earliest
qualities -- discussing how the young student first begins to relate to
Torah study. He is still the humble student, sitting before his teacher, at
best asking a good question here and there. Why is this one of the final ways?
I'd like to now turn to the second quality we have listed -- "precisely
quoting what one has heard." After we examine it, I believe we will gain an
important insight into the qualities themselves as well as their placement
within our mishna.
"Precisely quoting what one has heard" implies that the Torah scholar takes
care to accurately quote the teachings he is passing on. Although he is long
an accomplished scholar in his own right (again, we're on the 47th Way),
much of what he teaches consists of the teachings he received from his own
teachers -- which he dutifully passes along in the manner they were handed
The Sages in fact place great emphasis that our tradition be preserved in as
accurate a manner as possible. The Talmud praises scholars who were
meticulous in this, including a scholar who quoted his teacher's decision
using the then-archaic term his teacher had used (Brachos 33b). The Talmud
likewise always takes great pains to record the original author of every
statement quoted, as well as the entire chain of relevant authors, if e.g. X
quoted it from Y who quoted it from Z. The scholars of the Talmud likewise,
in cases of dispute, would quote the names of the disputants even if they
could not remember which sage argued which position. ("Rabbi X and Rabbi Y,
one held this way and the other held that way...") In addition, the Talmud
often attempts to resolve such doubts and determine the true author of each
Thus, the Sages seemed intent to preserve our tradition in its entirety,
seeing the Torah teacher as primarily a link between his own teacher's Torah
and the students who follow. When we consider, however, the tendency of the
good student to question everything his teacher attempts to convey, we come
up with an interesting dichotomy -- and an important insight into the
placement of these two qualities.
On the one hand, the good, inquisitive student will not take anything
sitting down. He questions whatever he does not understand -- not for the
sake of challenging authority but in order to ensure he fully comprehends.
The Torah must become his own; *he* must understand it in his own unique way.
Yet when he has achieved that mastery of Torah -- when he becomes a teacher
himself -- he turns back and relates his study to the teachers who preceded
him. The Torah is his unique and personal acquisition. Yet it is really no
more than an extension of the unalterable teachings stemming from Sinai. We
all view the Torah from a slightly different angle, but it is the same
Torah. Our tradition can be built upon but can never be modified. As
students we are freethinking and innovative, intent on making our own
personal acquisition of G-d's wisdom. As teachers we see ourselves as
bearers and guardians, safeguarding a tradition as old and venerable as
Israel and life itself.
The Sages viewed our tradition as something almost greater than life,
greater than teacher and student combined. It must be preserved in pristine
form -- reflecting to whatever degree possible the distant -- but not really
so distant -- echoes of the G-d-given Torah at Sinai. And so we preserve
what was handed to us to the letter -- realizing that quite literally the
world's existence depends upon it.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.