Hero Worship in Judaism
Chapter 4, Mishna 7(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Tzaddok said: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not act
as a lawyer (in judgment). Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to
aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig. So too did Hillel state:
'He who uses the crown [of Torah] will pass on' (earlier, 1:13
http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter1-13b.html). From this you
may learn that anyone who derives benefit from the words of the Torah
removes his life from the world."
The first two statements of R. Tzaddok, regarding separating oneself from
the community and acting as a lawyer, both appeared earlier in Pirkei Avos,
in 2:5 (http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-5a.html) and 1:8
Please feel free to view our discussions in the archives. In some editions
of Pirkei Avos, these statements do not appear here at all.
The main theme of our mishna is that one must not make use of his Torah
knowledge for his own purposes. The Torah is G-d's gift to Israel. It
enables us to understand G-d's word and build a relationship with Him. It is
ours to use towards this lofty ideal. If, by contrast, we attempt to use the
Torah towards self-serving ends, whether social or financial, G-d may see
fit to remind us that the Torah is not ours to cash in on. (As our mishna
states, "he... will pass on.") The Torah is for us an obligation and a
challenge -- not a status-seeking tool.
The first manner our mishna advises that we not treat the Torah is as a
crown. We should not learn or teach Torah in order to be admired or
respected by others. This point would seem to be self-evident. It's
interesting to note, however, that this does not seem the entire story. We
will learn later (Mishna 17 (http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-
avos/chapter4-17.html)) that the Torah scholar possesses what is referred to
as the "crown" of Torah. So to some degree the Torah *is* a crown for those
who merit to wear it. Yet here we are told that the scholar must not treat
it as such.
Further, the Talmud teaches us: "Whoever holds back his student from serving
him, it is as if he denies from him kindliness" (i.e., he denies his student
the opportunity to show honor where it is due) (Kesuvos 96a). So a Torah
teacher should allow his students to honor him. There is in fact a large
body of law which defines and governs the homage which is due to one's Torah
teacher and to scholars in general. (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 242-4.)
So in truth, the scholar does possess the crown of Torah, *we* must treat
him accordingly, and -- at least passively -- he must graciously accept our
veneration. Yet he must not "use" his knowledge as a crown. Now is this a
show? Does the rabbi know deep down "it's coming to him," yet just must not
say it in the open?
I believe the answer lies in a fuller understanding of the metaphor the
Rabbis employ here -- the crown. (As always, the Sages are exceedingly
precise in their terminology. The more closely we analyze their words, the
more fully we can appreciate the depth of their wisdom.) There is a fairly
universal concept that kings wear crowns -- while ministers, advisers,
noblemen, etc. virtually never do. Now a crown serves no utilitarian
function, nor does it bestow power on an undeserving bearer. If so, why is
it so intrinsic a part of the king's attire?
The answer is that a crown represents a sense of completeness. A true king
is one whose very existence is bound together with his nation. His life's
calling, his total devotion is the state. His essence is the state: he *is*
the state. When a person so completely identifies with his mission or
calling, a crown -- whether actual or figurative -- rests atop his head. His
very being and body become one with that which he embodies, so much so that
his essential self -- his head -- is crowned with the symbol of his calling.
(Based in part on thoughts heard from my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
When a Torah scholar is said to possess the crown of Torah, it does not
refer to some external decorative ornament. It implies that his very essence
is the Torah. By dint of his commitment, effort and perseverance, he has
come to embody the Torah and all its sacred values. He is what we sometimes
call "a living Sefer Torah (Torah scroll)." When we accord honor to such a
man, we are not honoring him as a person. It is that he has become so bound
to the Torah -- such a reflection of the word of G-d -- that to honor him is
to honor G-d Himself.
Thus, when can a person claim the honor due to a Torah scholar? When the
honor is not his at all, when he sees himself as nothing more than a hollow
reflection of the Torah for others to venerate. He will not see himself as
the recipient of the honor. He will recognize that he is no more than a
vehicle -- one which enables others to give expression to their very real
need to revere the Almighty Himself.
The Torah states: "The L-rd your G-d shall you fear" (Deuteronomy 10:20).
The first word of this verse (in the Hebrew) is 'es' (or 'et'). 'Es' is a
very common word, yet it does not translate into English because it has no
English counterpart. It is a kind of simple connective, here: "Es the L-rd
your G-d you shall fear." In English we would do away with the 'es'
altogether: English needs no connective between "you shall fear" and "the L-
rd your G-d." Yet 'es' is ubiquitous in the Torah, appearing in practically
The Talmud (Pesachim 22b) records the following: Shimon of Amson (according
to some: Nehemiah of Amson) was able to derive a new law every time the word
'es' appeared in the Torah. In other words, this 'es' which to us English
speakers seems entirely superfluous, Shimon of Amson found great
significance in. (A mean feat. This is no doubt the most common words in the
Torah, kind of like 'a' in English.)
However, when Shimon reached the verse "The L-rd your G-d you shall fear" he
refrained -- he ceased deriving laws from 'es'. He felt nothing could
possibly be included and thereby equated to G-d Himself. What else can you
fear? A heavenly body? An angel? But they are mere emissaries of G-d! *G-d*
is the only one we should truly fear; there can be no other!
And once Shimon realized his thesis was incorrect in that one instance, he
concluded that one must *never* be able to derive laws from 'es'. His entire
past thesis was flawed. And so, he withdrew all his previous teachings. His
students protested: "What about all the instances of 'es' you did expound?"
He answered: "Just as I received reward for the expounding, so too will I
receive reward for the refraining ." This was so until R. Akiva came along
later and inferred, "'es' the L-rd... you shall fear" -- this includes Torah
My teacher, R. Moshe Eisemann, of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Baltimore,
asked: What was so difficult about R. Akiva's inference that Shimon of Amson
-- the world-renowned 'es' expert -- was unable to arrive at it? How is it
that R. Akiva was able to resolve a difficulty that Shimon himself was
unable to solve?
My teacher, quoting another thinker (I don't recall whom), explained as
follows: Shimon was stumped: How could anything finite possibly be compared
to an infinite G-d? So what did he do? He took his entire life's work -- the
thousands of 'es's he no doubt did explain throughout his career -- and
tossed them all out -- without a second thought. If it's wrong, if this
isn't Torah truth, it mattered not one wit how many years he had spent
poring over every other 'es' in the Torah. It is not the Torah, and it was
therefore not in keeping with his life's mission to continue.
Now, when R. Akiva saw *that* -- such selfless devotion, such an altruistic
pursuit of G-d's Torah without any concern for his own success or reputation
-- he was able to say: "*Now* I know who can be compared to G-d." Shimon
exemplified such selfless dedication to G-d's Torah, he had so totally
annulled himself before his Maker, that to honor such a man was not to honor
a human being at all. It was to honor G-d Himself.
I feel the above thought is not only powerful in its own right. It further
has a particular relevance to us. Most of us hail from democratic societies,
and the notion that all men are created equal is to us paramount. Everyone
is entitled to shake hands with the President. And we become a little
uncomfortable at the thought of raising certain people on pedestals, of
giving them preferential treatment. Because he is smarter and was born to
more favorable circumstances, I must stand up when he enters the room or
address him in the third person? And in truth, is the one born with a higher
IQ and an intellectual bent truly better than the simple Jew who strives for
closeness to G-d in his own humble way?
But the answer lies in what we have just written. Judaism does not believe
in hero-worship. There are no demigods in Scripture or Jewish literature.
The Torah is quite candid about the faults of all its heroes. For we do not
honor others because flesh and blood deserves honor. We do so only if it is
a means of honoring G-d Himself. If a person's study and devotion transform
him into a reflection of the beauty of Torah and the wisdom of G-d, then to
honor him is to honor G-d. Honor is an elusive animal. It does not dwell
within man at all -- only in the emptiness of a humble but devoted soul.
Such a person does not carry honor; he reflects it. But in doing so he gives
us a glimpse of the divinity of the human soul and the godly spirit that
resides within us all.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.