"Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is acquired with 48 ways. These are: ... (20) slowness to anger, (21) a good heart..."
For the past several weeks we have been studying the famous "48 Ways" mishna, which lists the 48 ways through which the Torah is acquired.
The first quality of this week, slowness to anger, is perhaps the first one we have come across which seems to have virtually nothing to do with scholarship per se. Practically all the qualities thus far were closely related to study -- listening, articulating, discussion with colleagues, limited worldly activity, etc. Directly or indirectly, they all contributed to our scholastic focus and achievement. An even disposition, on the other hand, though certainly a wonderful trait, would seem to have little relevance to study. It seems a more universal trait. It is in fact one of the qualities attributed to G-d (Exodus 34:6) -- one we would assume all Jews should emulate. What is the particular relevance to scholars?
The commentators offer a number of excellent answers to this. The first and possibly most important is that people just don't think straight when they're angry (Machzor Vitri). The Midrash tells us that every time Moses angered at the people, he made some kind of mistake (see Rashi to Numbers 31:21). He rebuked them for brazenly demanding water, and he then produced water by hitting a rock rather than speaking to it (see Numbers 20:1-13). He criticized Israel for preserving the wicked daughters of Midyan alive after their victorious battle against Midyan, and he then neglected to teach a relevant law (Numbers 31:1-24).
This is because anger is simply not conducive to rational thought or behavior. We all regret the things we said or did in fits of anger. (In one of my past jobs, I really owed a lot to my dear friend one cubicle over -- who saved me from myself more than once by stopping me from sending off that e-mail in which I was all set to give someone a piece of my mind. In fact, I've always agreed with him after the fact that the email just wouldn't have been worth it. (It does do some good writing up that e-mail up even without sending it.) ;-)
Likewise, Torah study, for all the exhilaration and excitement it entails, requires constant and levelheaded study and review. It will never be acquired by a seething and unsettled mind, beset with anger and pettiness.
The Midrash Shmuel (authored by R. Shmuel de Uzeda, of 16th Century Safed, Israel) proposes a different answer. Anger is one of the biggest inhibitors of interpersonal relationships. Someone who is irascible or otherwise difficult to get along with will only with difficulty build good and healthy relationships. People who are forced to deal with him (employees, family members) will be cautious or defensive in his presence -- or will turn into scared and resentful "people-pleasers" -- only letting out their true feelings about the person behind his back. Such a hothead will lack sincere and meaningful relationships, and though others may jump to attention in his presence, essentially he will be a lonely person indeed.
Good relationships are in truth important for everything in life -- for our emotional as well as spiritual development. For Torah study, however, it is critical. Many of the qualities we have studied thus far cannot be acquired in isolation. One must be a good listener (Way 2), he must humbly serve the scholars (Way 9), and he must discuss with colleagues and explain to students (Ways 10-11). Torah study requires almost constant positive interaction with others -- teachers, colleagues and students.
As we've explained many times in the past, the Torah was never intended to be studied in a vacuum, reviewing texts in a chilly library setting. It is a living document, only attainable through animated and lively discussion. Only through real and meaningful human involvement does one truly acquire the Torah -- not as a book of facts and information, but as a living and pertinent guide for life. The goal is learning how to *live* Torah, not how to study it.
The angry person, however, will be ill-equipped to achieve in any of these areas. He will be unable to humble himself in front of his teacher and engage in open and sincere discussion with friends. And worst of all, he will not have the patience to teach others. We learned earlier in Pirkei Avos (way back when), "An impatient person cannot teach" (2:6 (http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-6.html)).
As we all know, a very small part of teaching any true wisdom is knowing the material for oneself. A more important but still relatively insignificant aspect is being able to explain the material. The truly significant factor is building a rapport with one's students -- in the classroom and on an individual level. A teacher must give himself over to his students. He must be actively involved in and concerned with their development, willing to give over at the level each student is ready to receive. His goal is to foster and supervise their growth -- not to explain (or brag) his own Torah thoughts to others. Only the most giving and selfless person can assume such a role. Without it, not only will the students suffer, but the teacher will never master this stage so critical and necessary for his own personal growth.
This issue relates to Way 21 as well -- a good heart. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that a good heart -- also a wonderful trait but again, hardly scholarship-related -- is a critical prerequisite for interpersonal growth. If one is happy with the accomplishments of others, he will learn and grow from his friends as they grow from him. He will not find himself in constant debate with others, always out to prove he is right. He will see the wisdom others have to offer and gain from it. His understanding of Torah will be objective and selfless, not tainted by his own ego and pettiness.
This is perhaps the greatest inhibitor of our own personal growth. People naturally have quite healthy (read, inflated) egos. We are loath to admit our mistakes -- certainly not in front of whomever we're arguing with and usually not afterwards either. If I don't want to be shown wrong -- or if I am afraid or unable to admit any part of my life might be based on fallacy, I will convince myself of my preconceived notions -- even if they were never really thought out or were developed during some hazy, forgotten stage of my youth. Are we willing to change when we hear truth? Are we open to what others have to say, or are we too full of and sure of ourselves (and resentful of others) to budge? It all depends on if we are big enough to own up to mistakes and do something about them. And it actually all stems from the heart. If we feel good about others -- and if we're not threatened by the thought that we might be wrong -- we will feel good about what they have to say. And if we feel good about what they say, we may just be open to new ideas. It sounds almost teasingly simple, yet this is perhaps the greatest challenge man faces in life.