Avtalyon says: Wise scholars, be careful with your words (take care that ambiguous words not be misunderstood); lest you be liable for (the punishment of) exile, and you will be exiled to a place of evil waters, from which students may come and drink and die, resulting in the desecration of the Name of Heaven.
Avtalyon comes to complete the lesson in the same way it has been done in the previous sets of Mishnayoth. The first Tanna teaches the positive, what one is supposed to do, relating to serving G-d out of love. This is especially relevant [to Shmaya’s lesson] which instructs in bringing the love of G-d in to the world, which happens when one sees Torah scholars behaving in an exemplary way, loving work (service) and not looking to draw benefit from others. Despising control over others is also motivated by the desire to always serve, not to control. People of power are motivated by their own glory and looking for their own gain, rather than the for the glory and benefit of G-d. (This is in contrast to proper leadership which is motivated by the true desire to serve and be there for the benefit of others.) The only way a leader can save himself from this pitfall is by loving work and service, despising power, and maintaining an independence from others who are in positions of power (politicians). All of these bring him to humility, enabling himself to humble himself before G-d.
(This is the secret of how people can appropriately assume positions of leadership and power that are necessary for all societies, as well as all economic and organizational entities, to function properly. A position of power is supposed to be viewed as one of responsibility rather than one of privilege. If one is motivated by the drive to SERVE, focused on the welfare of those who he is leading, looking always to give to them, rather than benefit from them and from his position, then he will not suffer the drawbacks that the Maharal has attributed to people in positions of power. See the famous “Kuntres HaChesed” of Rav Desseler in Michtav Me’Eliyahu (Strive for Truth) for an in depth treatment of this concept.)
After this lesson, built on bringing about more love of G-d, Avtalyon, the Av Beith Din, teaches the converse of what NOT to do, to avoid the desecration of the Name of Heaven (Chilul HaShem).
Wise scholars, take care with your words, so that unscrupulous students shouldn’t learn (distorted things) from you and “attach themselves to a large tree” (attribute their own opinions to a great person) with “ropes of naught” (with false interpretations and applications), causing a desecration of G-d’s name.
Why did the Tanna connect this problem (of unscrupulous students) specifically to exile? It can happen anywhere!
Under normal circumstances, a Torah scholar should never teach a student who isn’t fitting and virtuous. (See Chulin 133a about the severity of teaching students who are not suitable.) On “home territory” one learns to recognize and eliminate these students. But exiled from his home, the Torah scholar does not know people, and he is likely to take in students who are not suitable. Additionally, in exile he doesn’t have the same level of control over his choice of students as he does in his own habitat. So it is more likely in exile that one is in danger of having his words misused by unscrupulous students.
Additionally, the intent of the Tanna “students may come and drink and die” is not referring to bad students of the Torah scholar himself, for they will not succeed in distorting the words of their teacher (while they are his students), and any desecration they cause is not the fault of the scholar. However, others will (innocently) learn from these students (thinking they are getting an accurate transmission from the original scholar) and if the scholar was not meticulously careful in his words, distortions can be disseminated, leading to a desecration of the Name of Heaven for which the scholar does have responsibility.
Had he not gone in to exile, we can be confident that his few unsuitable students would be neutralized by the large number of his virtuous students. But in exile, there is a dearth of suitable students, and students (who themselves may be suitable) coming to “drink from his waters” (study his Torah) may be misled by unsuitable students who will succeed in incorrectly transmitting his teachings, due to their ambiguities.
Another connection with exile is that when a Torah scholar is deserving of exile, his Torah also deserves to be exiled, which means leaving the place where it should reside (within suitable students) to a place which is foreign for it — unsuitable students.
Both Shmaya and Avtalyon have taught lessons to ensure that G-d’s name should be sanctified through Torah scholars, and not desecrated. The lessons of one complement the lessons of the other.
When Torah scholars behave in an exemplary fashion, loving work and not pursuing money and power, the name of G-d is made beloved to others. (This is the dimension of serving G-d from love.) On the other hand, care must be taken not to cause the desecration of G-d’s name, which emanates from a fear of Heaven.
Shmaya teaches to despise positions of public power, for the guilt of the community resides with the leaders who could have protested improper behavior and didn’t. We are taught (see Shabbat 54b) that the house of the “reish galuta” (chief political leader) is liable for the sins of the entire nation, for it was within their power to protest and influence the nation’s improper behavior. Avtalyon teaches that even one who isn’t in a position of communal power, but is a teacher who has students, is compared to a person of power. For he has the ability to influence his students, and if he isn’t careful in what he teaches them, he has responsibility for their behavior and any desecration of G-d’s name that may ensue.
These two Tannaim complement each other in teaching one fundamental lesson: One should not pursue power, for with it goes responsibility for the actions of the people over whom he wields that power. He should pursue work, service. (When his motivation is exclusively to give to the community, to serve the needs of the community, then he is not considered to be in a position of control over them, and his personal responsibility for their improper actions is diminished. He is always looking to serve them and their welfare, so it is clear that he would never hesitate to rebuke them for improper actions, since he isn’t worried about losing a position of power and a situation that is to his personal benefit. Since he is focused on serving them, it will be only their loss if they do not allow him to be in a leadership position anymore. He will have no fear of saying what needs to be said, if their is hope of it improving the people he leads, and he will have no fear of losing his position of leadership, since he views it as one of giving, one of service. When were we ever afraid that maybe someone wouldn’t take what we wanted to give to them for their own benefit — unless our egos were tied up with our giving?)