Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
During this period of learning a weekly chapter of Pirkei Avot and preparing ourselves for receiving the Torah, I would like to share with our readers a story from “Avot de-Rabbi Natan” (chapter 18), along with what I believe to be a fitting interpretation of it. To help the discovery process along, I note my own thoughts at each stage of the story.
“In Rabbi Yehoshua’s old age, his disciples came to visit him.
Disciples are coming to visit their teacher – our immediate association could have been a gathering for the purposes of study. But the opening words of this narrative cut short this train of thought: the Rabbi is old. The introduction presents Rabbi Yehoshua not as a teacher, a Rav, but as a feeble old man. His students are coming to him not with the intention of learning from him, but rather in order to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the sick.
He said to them: “My sons, what new Torah idea did you come up with in the Beit Midrash?”
Rabbi Yehoshua, on his sickbed and far removed from the Beit Midrash, is interested to know how their Torah world is developing without him. Perhaps he is not an active partner in this creation, but he wants to know what new Torah insights his disciples have attained.
They answered: “We are your disciples; we drink from your waters.”
This answer – respectful as it may be – is trying to hide a completely different truth: nothing is new in the Beit Midrash. “We are your students,” the visitors declare; “We are unable to attain new insights of our own; we can only drink from your waters.”
He said to them: “Heaven forefend! There is no generation that is without its Sages.”
Rabbi Yehoshua does not accept this position. There is no Beit Midrash without new Torah insights, and Sages – in the plural – are always to be found. It appears that Rabbi Yehoshua now expects his students to tell him what original teachings they have discovered. But his students are silent, so Rabbi Yehoshua continues:
“Whose Shabbat was it?” (i.e., Whose turn was it as “nasi” in the beit midrash?)
This further question by Rabbi Yehoshua reveals the heavy silence that filled the room. The students do not accept the challenge; they do not admit to having attained anything new, they simply remain silent. Therefore Rabbi Yehoshua “gives in” and asks what new teaching was presented by someone else: it is not possible that the entire Torah world has been silenced.
They said to him, “It was the Shabbat of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria.”
He said to them: “And what did he talk about today?”
They answered: “The section on, “Gather the nation – the men, the women and the children…[discussing the ‘hakhel’ ceremony, a gathering of the entire nation] [Devarim 31:12]”.
He asked them: “And what did he teach about this?”
This dialogue gives us the sense that Rabbi Yehoshua needs to “squeeze” the teaching from his disciples. They volunteer no information at all. To the question, “Who spoke?”, they are prepared to answer that it was Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria. As to, “What did he speak about?” – they will agree to disclose which verse he was discussing. We have the sense that his disciples are trying with all their might to remain silent and not to tell Rabbi Yehoshua what the teaching was about – until he forces them, by asking explicitly, “What did he say?”
They said to him: “This is what he said about it: The men come [to the gathering] to learn, and the women to hear. But for what purpose must the children come? In order that God may give a good reward to those who bring them.
He said to them: “You had a precious pearl in your hands, and you sought to hide it from me?! It would have been worth your coming just [for me] to hear that alone!”
Rabbi Yehoshua appreciates the teaching, but his words convey a cynical comment towards his students: “It would have been worth your coming just to hear”: your presence here is not on the level of people coming to learn, but rather on the lower level- of people coming only to hear.
It appears that there is a profound disagreement between Rabbi Yehoshua and his students as to who is worthy of “learning”, and who is worthy only of “hearing”. The students regard themselves as merely drinking from the waters of their teacher. The authority to learn out, to derive, to innovate, rests exclusively with the teacher. Even within the world of the Rabbis themselves, there is a hierarchy: a younger Rabbi cannot present a teaching in the presence of an “elder” – in years and in wisdom. Therefore they refrain from uttering their insights, and even refrain from repeating the teaching of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria in front of Rabbi Yehoshua, for whom the whole Torah is an open book and who surely cannot be taught anything new.
Rabbi Yehoshua, on the other hand, regards the disciple as a Torah student in his own right. The world of innovative thought is open to him, and the teacher will be glad to declare, “From my students [I have learned] more than from all the others”. The “hakhel” ceremony teaches – more than any other occasion – that we are all equal when it comes to accepting the Torah; the only difference between people concerns whether they want to learn, or whether they suffice with listening.
This difference of opinion is not decided one way or the other. It continues to a new stage:
They said to him: “He also taught, [concerning the verse] “The words of the wise are like spurs, and like nails driven are those who gather…” (Kohelet 12:11). Just as the spur drives the ox to its furrows, so the words of Torah drive a person to the ways of life. But [we may ask:] just as this spur wavers, so the words of Torah waver? [Surely not,] therefore it is written, “like driven nails”. Just as nails that are driven in are not dislodged, so the words of Torah likewise do not become dislodged. “Those who gather” – these are the learned Torah Sages, who enter and sit in groups [gatherings]: these rule that [a certain matter] is forbidden while those rule that it is permitted; these rule that [a certain thing] is ritually impure while others rule that it is ritually pure; these deem [a certain thing] unfit, while others rule that it is fit.”
Rabbi Yehoshua’s students answer him, declaring that Torah study has a purpose: to guide a person in his Divine service. How can it be possible for every person to pick his own path? We must be nourished by our Rabbis and teachers, from our tradition; we must not make up new ideas by ourselves. The words of Torah are like nails that are driven in and that do not become dislodged, and only an experienced carpenter is authorized to drive them.
According to the written version the following excerpt is also uttered by the students, but according to our interpretation it is more likely that it was uttered by Rabbi Yehoshua:
A person may then say to you, “I shall sit [by without doing anything, so as] not to change anything.” Therefore it says, “…given by the same Shepherd” (Kohelet, ibid.). They [the words of Torah] are created by the same God; they were given by the same Benefactor; the Master of all actions declared them. You too, then, should make your ears like a receptacle and take into them the words of those who forbid along with [the words of] those who permit; the words of those who declare [a thing] impure along with the words [of those] declaring it pure; the words of those who declare it unfit along with the words [of those] declaring it fit.”
There is no single voice in the world of Torah; there is a variety of opinions and a multiplicity of voices. Some declare an action forbidden while others permit it; some declare an object ritually pure while others declare it impure. It is important to take in the fragrance of the entire range of opinions, so long as we keep in mind that all were given from the same Shepherd.
We too, in this period of preparation for the giving of the Torah, must prepare ourselves: first of all, just to reach the foot of the mountain – like children. We must then make an effort to hear the words of the Torah. But we must not suffice with this: we are obligated also to learn.