9: The words of Torah are compared to water, as it says: (Yeshaya 55:1) “Behold, all who are thirsty, come to the water” – to teach you that just as water does not collect on an incline, rather flows on its own and collects at a low place – similarly the words of Torah are not found among the haughty nor in the hearts of the arrogant, rather in the humble and the lowly person who sits in the dust at the feet of the sages and removes his desires and temporal pleasures from his heart. He does minimal work each day – enough for his livelihood if he has nothing to eat – and the rest of his time he involves himself in Torah study.
Q1: Water can equally “collect” on a mesa. Why is the haughty person compared to an incline, instead of a high plateau? (I am not asking this because every analogy has to be perfect – but there may be more here than meets the eye)
YF: By using an example of an incline instead of a high plateau, R could be telling us that it is still possible for the haughty person to change his ways, become humble and be able to accept the Torah. If he had used an example of a high plateau, the haughty person might have thought that to get down to the bottom would be extremely hard – if not impossible – and would give up.
YE: An arrogant person isn’t REALLY higher than everyone else (usually his self-perception is lower) – so to portray him as a mesa would be misleading. The incline is most appropriate because it reflects the reality (the downside) and his imagination (the upside) – and that, of course, is why he is most likely to slide and let Torah fall away. Someone who really is a mesa will certainly accumulate a wealth of Torah – that’s not arrogance, that’s accurate self-perception of greatness (see the very end of BT Sotah).
Q2: “sits in the dust of the feet of the sages” is a phrase from Avot 1:4 – *hevei mit’abeq b’aphar ragleihem* – why is this particular phrase used to illustrate the proper attitude towards the sages?
YF: One of the explanations of sitting in the dust of the feet of the sages can be a level of humility. It is saying “I know you (the Rabbi) are greater than I, and that you can teach me a lot.”
YE: R. Hayyim of Volozhin (Ruach Hayyim, 1:4) has a wonderful explanation: The word used here, “mit’abek”, is a double entendre: “Avak”, which means dust; and “he’avek” – to wrestle.
R. Hayyim explains that the proper Talmid-Rebbi relationship carries the following tension: We have to challenge our teachers and, if they relate something which seems incorrect, to ask them and wrestle with them – he cites the famous Talmudic metaphor of “the war of Torah” (Kiddushin 30b); yet we have to remember that we sit in the dust of their feet (which may mean that once we have challenged them, we should be ready to hear their responses with the awareness of their greatness relative to our station in wisdom.)
Q3: What connection is there between “sitting at the dust of the feet of the sages” and removing personal desires?
HH: For me, “sitting at the dust…” means acquiring wisdom from the sages even at the cost of comfort. (Sitting at the dust must not be comfortable!) Therefore, one must remove personal desires.
YF: If sitting at the dust of the feet of the sages is a level of humility, then what R is telling us is that humilty is one of the ways of removing personal desire.
YE: It isn’t any “personal desires” as much as *inappropriate* personal desires. Sitting at the feet of sages demonstrates (and internalizes) our singleminded desire for wisdom which overcomes the discomfort, lack of dignity (perhaps) etc. involved in sitting at their feet. With that sort of passion for Torah, other passions simply do not have room to control us.
Q4: How do you remove personal desires???
YF: The first step would be humility which would enable you to learn the Torah and involve yourself in it day and night.
YE: Following R’s example:
1) Practice restraint (if you are sitting at the feet of the sages, there isn’t a whole lot of inappropriate desiring that can be fulfilled)
2) Channel the lust/energy into intellectual endeavors (the passion for Torah and wisdom)
Q5: Again we see the connection between lowness of spirit, humility etc. and minimizing involvement in work. What is the connection?
YF: One who spends less time in business – in order to have more time to learn – believes whole-heartedly that Hashem is in control of everything, and is thus humbled.
Rambam, Copyright (c) 1999 Project Genesis, Inc.