An earlier version of this class was dedicated in memory of my beloved nephew, Aharon Elimelech ben HaRav Ben-Tzion Eliezer (1987-2005), a wonderful young man who was taken from us just as he began to flower. 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 pray that the family be granted consolation and that his memory be an eternal source of blessing for 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 by exaggerating the honor due to them we will actually be according 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, 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. 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 — nowadays 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 dissatisfying about 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 not undervalued. If so, why is the obligation so much stronger when it comes to one’s own associates?
The following historical incident is recorded in the Talmud (Yevamos 62b). (As some of you may know, it relates to the minor holiday of Lag Ba’Omer — which falls out the day I’m typing this.) 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) 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 group single-handedly 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 neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), “This is a great principle of the Torah” (Toras Kohanim 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 neighbor?” (What kind of antisocial, politically-incorrect bigot 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 neighbor” 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 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 special 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, and let’s face it (at the risk of sounding politically incorrect), talent was certainly not evenly distributed to every member of mankind. The true meaning of man’s equality — as I heard R. Noach Weinberg put it — is that we all have Divine souls; each of us reflects G-d in his own unique way. We are all thinking and choosing beings who can follow the paths of godliness and spirituality, or those of darkness and corruption. As Maimonides puts it, every single one of us can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.)
Each and every one of us, in spite of differences, faults and imperfections, are 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 © 2005 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.