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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas: Acquire a friend
This Torah Attitude is dedicated to Moshe Mernick and Melanie Deverett on their upcoming wedding. May HASHEM bless them with all the best that life has to offer.
In the previous Torah Attitude we discussed the importance of not just having a mentor, but being ready to serve him. In this Torah Attitude we will discuss the other two requirements, which are examining the studied material with colleagues and debating it with students. "I learned a lot from my rabbis, but I learned even more from my colleagues. And from my students I learned more than from anyone else." Just like the student needs his rabbi to fully develop his potential in his studies, the rabbi needs his students to continue and develop his personal potential. When Rabbi Yochanan lost his student, Resh Lakish, his pain was unbearable, and he could not get over it. "Torah study will not last by individuals who study on their own." "Accept upon yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend." The importance of having a close friend is not just for the sake of studying Torah together, but to have someone that can put one straight when one makes mistakes. "Two are better than one ... for if they fall one can raise the other." It is very important to be a good listener and to listen to what the other one has to say, and not just try to express one's own opinion. The world was created for the purpose of being together.
In the previous Torah Attitude we discussed the importance of not just having a mentor, but being ready to serve him. Obviously, attending to the needs of one's rabbi or teacher is not sufficient to acquire Torah knowledge. It must come hand in hand with the actual study, otherwise chances are that one will misunderstand the conduct of one's mentor and often reach the wrong conclusion. But when one studies Torah and then sees how the rabbi or teacher conducts himself, then one gains an insight into how to implement the Torah lessons in practical situations.
Examining and debating
We also mentioned that serving Torah scholars was the first of three requirements, mentioned in the Mishnah, that include interactions with other people. In this Torah Attitude we will discuss the other two requirements, which are "examining the studied material with colleagues" and "debating it with students". As we have mentioned earlier, when we talk about teacher and student it is not necessarily in the formal setting of a class. This can also refer to when two people study together and one is more knowledgeable than the other.
Learn from students
When people look for partners with whom to study Torah, most people prefer to study with someone more knowledgeable than themselves because they believe that they will benefit by the other person's superior knowledge. The Talmud (Taanis 7a) teaches that it is not necessarily so. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Chanina, who used to say: "I learned a lot from my rabbis, but I learned even more from my colleagues. And from my students I learned more than from anyone else." The Maharal explains that the main benefit one gains from one's teacher is the actual knowledge. But when two students sit together to examine the material they study or have been taught, they will come to a clearer understanding of the subject through their discussions. Finally, there is a special benefit, says the Maharal, from teaching someone who knows less than oneself. Such a person will question every detail and, in this way, it forces the mentor to get a much clearer and more exact understanding of the subject. Obviously, one must first study by a rabbi or teacher before one can teach others. But most people have what to offer to others that have learned less than themselves. With this insight, we can well understand why we pray to G'd every morning, in the blessing before Shema, for Divine assistance to both learn and teach.
Student and rabbi need each other
The Talmud (Makkos 10a) teaches that if a student inadvertently killed another person, and therefore must be exiled to one of the designated cities of refuge, his teacher must go along with him. For the Torah instructs (Devarim 4:42): "A person who killed another person without intent ... he shall flee to one of these cities and live." Says the Talmud, if he does not have his teacher with him, we would be depriving him of his life. When the Rambam brings this commandment (Laws of Murders 7:1), he adds: "Someone who seeks knowledge, if he does not have the ability to learn Torah, he feels as if he is dead." The Talmud continues, as quoted by the Rambam, that the same applies to a rabbi who accidently killed another person. This rabbi must go into exile, and his whole yeshiva must go with him to the city of refugee. This teaches us that just like the student needs his rabbi to fully develop his potential in his studies, the rabbi needs his students to continue and develop his personal potential.
This is most apparent in the tragic life history of one of the great sages of the Talmud. The Talmud (Berachos 5b) relates how Rabbi Yochanan, lost his ten children. He continued to study and teach, and he even had the strength to visit other families and comfort them when they suffered the loss of a child. But when Rabbi Yochanan lost his student, Resh Lakish, his pain was unbearable, and he could not get over it. The other rabbis tried to find him a replacement, but no one was on the level of Resh Lakish. Without his special disciple, Rabbi Yochanan could not develop his learning further. This disturbed him to the extent that he went out of his mind. This is a classic example of the Rambam's statement that if a Torah scholar does not have the ability to continue to learn they way he is accustomed to he is missing his raison d'?tre.
Torah study will not last by individuals who study on their own
The Talmud (Taanis 7a) teaches that, in the same way that the Torah is referred to as the Tree of Life, so is every one who studies Torah like a part of that Tree. And just like a small piece of wood ignites a big log, in the same way a small scholar will ignite a big sage and be instrumental in his developing further and further. The Talmud takes this analogy a step further and says: "A single log cannot burn for long. In the same way, Torah study will not last by individuals who study on their own." Such a person, says the Talmud, will eventually lose his sharp mind and may even fall into sin as he only sees his own opinion.
Invest in friend
With this insight we can understand what it says in Pirkei Avos (1:6): "Accept upon yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend." At first glance, this sounds very strange. In general, an acquisition of an item involves payment, whereas accepting someone in most cases is for free. If someone wants to be accepted into a school or to study under a teacher it is common practice that one has to pay for such a privilege. On the other hand, to find a friend or study partner does not involve remuneration. The Mishnah here teaches that by Torah study it is the other way around. Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary on this Mishnah, explains that it is so important to have a good friend that it is even worthwhile to invest money to acquire him. Sometimes, says Rabbeinu Yonah, this acquisition is not a matter of monetary payment. Rather, one has to be ready to make concessions and approach friendship with a positive attitude. It may even include to tolerate when he says something that is upsetting. Only in this way, says Rabbeinu Yonah can one acquire a lasting friendship.
Importance of close friend
The Rambam, in his commentary, elaborates on this and explains the importance of having a close friend, not just for the sake of studying Torah together, but to have someone that can put him straight when he makes mistakes. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner adds that in general a person will justify his own deeds, as one is not objective with oneself. By acquiring a friend, one will have the opportunity to obtain an objective decision. For the two can discuss together how to go about things, and each one will be able to look objectively at the other one's personal situation.
Two are better than one
This is the deeper meaning in King Solomon's words (Koheles 4:9-10): "Two are better than one ... for if they fall one can raise the other. Whereas the one [who is on his own] that falls, and there is no one to raise him." Rashi explains that this also refers to marriage, where husband and wife are there to support each other. Further, they must develop such a closeness that they can straighten each other out when the need arises without getting into arguments. The Rambam explains how to establish and develop such lasting friendships. The Rambam's advice applies not only for two friends, but even more so in marriage. He says that each one must constantly seek to please the other person. This will strengthen the bond and love between them, and, says the Rambam, when both partners follow this direction they will eventually merge into one unit that seek and desire the same. It goes even further than that. The strength and power of a partnership is much stronger than the added strength and power of each partner. As Rashi quotes (Bamidbar 13:23) from the Talmud (Sotah 34a): "A burden that a person can carry on his own is only a third of what he can carry when he is assisted." If this is true in the physical form, how much more does it apply mentally.
It further says in Pirkei Avos (3:3): "Two who sit together and discuss words of Torah between them, the Divine Presence rests between them. As it says, (Malachi 3:16): 'Then those who fear G'd were spoken to one to another, and G'd listened and heard ...'" Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner points out the unusual expression in this verse when it says that "they were spoken to" rather than "they spoke to each other". He explains that this teaches how two friends should conduct themselves. It is very important to be a good listener and to listen to what the other one has to say, and not just try to express one's own opinion. Again, this applies as much in marriage as it does in any partnership. If each partner is ready to listen to the other, it promotes the friendship and love between them. But when each individual is trying to always be heard and get in the last word, this causes strife and the breakdown of any relationship. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner further explains the significance of what it says that "G'd listens and hears". This refers to when these people pray to G'd. As a reward for their readiness to listen to each other, G'd listens to their prayers as well.
World created for being together
The Talmud (Shabbos 30b) teaches that the world was created for the purpose of being together. This applies to every aspect of human life, but it is especially important when it comes to Torah study. No one is so smart that they can figure it all out by themselves. We all need each other, as mentioned above. We need teachers and we need colleagues, and we even need students. Everyone has what to learn and what to share with others. May we fully utilize the opportunities we get to acquire the Torah for ourselves and, in this way, be part of the continued transmission from Sinai to future generations.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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