"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: ... (41) being composed in one's studies,
(42) asking and responding, (43) listening and adding [to one's own
This week's qualities begin a new "series" and brings us to a later stage of
the Torah scholar's growth. I have not pointed this out earlier, but the
qualities of our mishna form a kind of progression. The earlier qualities
dealt with the young student and how he best acquires wisdom: through
attentive listening, careful deliberation, service of the Sages, limited
leisure time, etc. As our mishna progressed (we've been in this for almost 6
months!) it began to discuss Torah study's impact on the student: He becomes
patient, slow to anger, loving of uprightness, humble, etc. The next group
dealt with how our scholar relates to others as a result of his Torah study:
He feels a closeness towards them and an obligation to share in their
burdens, bringing them both towards truth and peace.
We are now at last on the home stretch. The focus of the mishna is now the
mature scholar, one who has been dedicating his primary years to study and
to public service. As we will see, at this stage he reaches a certain level
of maturity in his studies. This is in part the result of his more advanced
or mature understanding of the Torah, and in part due to his involvement
with others - or more dramatically: the blending of his abstract Torah
knowledge with real-life people and experiences.
The first quality listed above means that the Torah scholar is composed or
settled in his studies. He is not prone to the excesses or overzealousness
of the younger scholar, and he has reached a certain level of maturity in
his studies. As we will see, this greatly influences his understanding of
the Torah and his relationship with others.
The first manner in which the scholar is composed is in that he sees the Big
Picture. As frustrating as this sounds, one basically must know the entire
Torah to understand any part of it. As I once heard Rabbi Beryl Wein put it,
as soon as you open and attempt to read the first page of the Talmud, it
seems to assume you know the entire Talmud already. As inspiring as the
Talmud is, it does not seem to have been written for the beginner -- and
hardly even for the intermediate student. Some suggest that the Sages
intended it this way - so that we'll realize one can not master the Torah on
his own. He must learn from a teacher -- one who in turn studied from his
teacher in a tradition spanning from Sinai. In addition to this, however,
every part of the Torah is connected. One cannnot truly understand any one
part of it without at least some understanding of the entire picture. The
longer we study, however, the more it all fits together -- into that grand
and glorious Big Picture.
This relates to the next quality of our mishna - "asking and responding."
This means that the scholar's questions and responses are relevant to the
topic at hand. (Some versions of the mishna read, "asking on the topic and
responding to the point" (or: "responding according to Jewish law").) The
advanced scholar, in spite of his greater wisdom, does not obscure an issue
with over-abstractions or wild, irrelevant conjecture. He sticks to the
subject faithfully, almost *too* faithfully -- certainly more so than the
younger scholar who is busy flexing his intellectual muscles with wild
comparisons and juxtaposition. Thus, this quality is an outgrowth of
composure. Interestingly, the more we know and the more we have matured in
our studies, the more we are able to focus on the topic at hand. Once we
have that Big Picture, everything fits in and falls into place - and we
recognize what is relevant to a topic and what is not. The younger student,
however, is often too excited to focus on a single topic. He sees all sorts
of wild connections and intricacies -- and he's too overwhelmed by the
intellectual stimulation to focus on one topic alone.
I've had people write to me saying they are so excited about studying Torah
they are signed up to 18 classes all at once and are on the verge of cranial
meltdown (and loving it too). That's actually great - far be it from me to
tell someone to study less Torah - but true maturity comes when one's study
is focused and organized, when he has a clear and organized plan of growth
and study (it could certainly be a very challenging one too) -- and he
faithfully sticks to it.
A learned Gentile once approached Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (the
Kotzker Rebbe, 1787-1859) asking him, sort of facetiously, what was the
secret to the Rebbe's great wisdom. He was actually surprised that the Rebbe
gave him a serious answer -- and a good one too: "When I study, I can focus
on a single topic for days on end." After we have matured beyond the
overwhelming excitement of Torah study - when we have tired of wanting to
know everything at once - we recognize that true accomplishment comes in
comprehensive as well as copious study, in seeing what is relevant to a
subject and what is not. At that point not only are the scholar's questions
and responses correct and relevant, but all the inifinite details of his
wisdom, each shining in its distinct vividness and clarity, blend together
into an awesome and unified Big Picture.
There is actually a deeper idea behind maturity in study -- and besides, we
have another quality to tie in to this. :-) G-d willing for next week...
Pirkei-Avos, Copyright (c) 2002 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Project Genesis, Inc.