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Torah Attitude: Parashas Korach: Serving sages even more important than studying
The next of the 48 things needed to acquire Torah mentioned in the Mishnah is "serving the sages". Serving the person under whom one is studying Torah is even more significant than the actual study. "Not the study [of the Torah] is the main thing, but to practice what one has learned." If one studies without developing one's fear of G'd it would be better not to study. If a person only amasses knowledge from scripture and Mishnah, and is not prepared to serve the sages to gain the proper understanding how to bring it to a practical level, he is considered to be an evil doer and an ignoramus. A "Talmid Chacham" always considers himself to be a student of his own mentors that he learned by in the past. The Rambam enumerates every sage responsible for the transmission of Torah from Moses to his own days. Joshua was not the greatest scholar of all of Moses' disciples, but he was the one most dedicated to serve his teacher. Elisha's serving Eliyahu was even more significant than the Torah he studied by him. Whoever has a good eye, a humble spirit, and a modest soul is among the disciples of our forefather Abraham. Even the mundane talk of a Torah sage should be studied. The student should make himself subservient to his teacher and develop a mindset to accept what the teacher says. By reading biographies of Torah sages, one can gain insights into their conduct in daily matters. It is imperative that we follow the instructions of the Mishnah and make ourselves ready to serve Torah sages, so that we can learn from their ways and pass it on to the next generation.
Serving the sages
There are different versions of the order of the 48 things needed to acquire Torah mentioned in the Mishnah. We follow the order recorded in the Vilna Shass, and as such the next one mentioned is "serving the sages". This is the first of three requirements, that all include interactions with other people at different levels. The other two involve one's colleagues and students.
Serving more significant than study
We have already discussed previously the importance of studying Torah with a mentor; however, the Mishnah here takes this to a new level. It is not sufficient to attend classes. One must be ready to actually serve the person under whom one is studying Torah. The Talmud (Berachos 7b) teaches that this service is even more significant than the actual study. It goes so far that we find that our sages use "serving the sages" as a synonym for studying Talmud (see Yuma 86a and Sotah 21b). For the study of scripture and Mishnah it is not necessary to develop that special relationship with one's teacher, but in order to fully master the Talmud, it is necessary to be ready to serve the one who teaches. For although the study in itself serves a purpose, studying Talmud is a lot more than just an intellectual exercise.
Not study but practice
Every morning in the blessing before Shema we pray to G'd that He should assist us not only to learn and teach, but to keep, to perform and to fulfill all the words of the Torah's teachings. This corresponds to the words of the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 1:17): "Not the study [of the Torah] is the main thing, but to practice what one has learned." The Talmud teacher must therefore be able to set a personal example. He must show his students how one should conduct oneself in every aspect of one's life, and not just teach the text that they study together.
Fear of G'd
This includes both one's relationship with G'd and with other people. The Talmud is full of anecdotes and lessons that show the importance of striving to perfect one's fear of G'd, as well as one's interpersonal relationships. The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) makes it clear that if one studies without developing one's fear of G'd it would be better not to study.
Evil doer and ignoramus
The Talmud (Sotah 21b) further teaches that if a person only amasses knowledge from scripture and Mishnah, and is not prepared to serve the sages to gain the proper understanding how to bring it to a practical level, he is considered to be an evil doer and an ignoramus. Such a person can be very dangerous, for other people will view him as being knowledgeable, and he himself will feel entitled to make halachic rulings and guide people in their lives. But he is totally lacking the keys how to understand the deeper meaning of the Talmud, and how to translate it into practical conduct.
One of our greatest halachic authorities, Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, of Bnei Brak, points out that a Torah sage is referred to as a "Talmid Chacham". The literal meaning of this title is "a student of a scholar". This seems odd. It would be more understandable if he was referred to as a "teacher of students". Rabbi Wosner answers that a true Torah scholar is one that always considers himself to be a student of his own mentors that he learned by in the past.
Moses to Rambam
This is how Torah has been transmitted throughout all generations from teacher to student since G'd gave the Torah to Moses, as it says in the very first Mishnah of Pirkei Avos (1:1). The Rambam elaborates on this in his introduction to his halachic work and enumerates every sage responsible for the transmission of Torah from Moses to his own days. And the chain has continued unbroken right up till our own time.
Joshua served Moses
The aforementioned Mishnah teaches that Moses transmitted the Torah to Joshua. Rashi points out that Joshua was not the greatest scholar of all of Moses' disciples, but he was the one most dedicated to serve his teacher. As it says (Shemos 33:11): "And G'd spoke to Moses face to face … and his servant Joshua, son of Nun, a youth, would not depart from within the tent." The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:14) describes how Moses had had his own idea who should be the next leader of the Jewish people. But G'd said to Moses, "Joshua has served you a lot … He has been in the house of study from early morning to late evening, organized the benches and mats [for everyone to sit on]. He is worthy to serve the Jewish people."
Elisha served Eliyahu
The Talmud (Berachos 7b) makes a similar comment in regards to the Prophet Elisha who became the leader after the Prophet Eliyahu. The Talmud quotes what it says in the Book of Kings II (3:11) where Elisha is referred to as the one who poured water on the hands of Eliyahu. This, says the Talmud, teaches us that Elisha's serving Eliyahu was even more significant than the Torah he studied by him.
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:22) defines that whoever has a good eye, a humble spirit, and a modest soul is among the disciples of our forefather Abraham. This seems to be an unusual description of a disciple. Abraham had a big yeshiva where they no doubt studied many subjects. The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 14b) relates that the department in Abraham's yeshiva that dealt with idol worship studied four hundred chapters on that subject alone. Normally, one would describe a student from a particular school by the subjects studied there, rather than the character traits that were developed in that school. This again shows that in regards to Torah study, the character development and refinement that one acquires from one's mentor are much more significant than the knowledge one gains.
Study mundane talk of Torah scholar
By developing a close relationship with a Torah teacher, one gets an insight how to conduct oneself in one's daily affairs, and how to choose the right words in one's conversation. As the Talmud (Succah 20b) teaches that even the mundane talk of a Torah sage should be studied. Rashi (Avodah Zorah 19b) explains that the language of a Torah sage is clean and rich, and soothes the one who the sage speaks with.
Student subservient to teacher's mindset
Being ready to serve one's mentor does not only help to refine the student and his character traits, it actually helps him to better absorb what he is being taught. For in this way, the student makes himself subservient to his teacher and develops a mindset to accept what the teacher says. This is the deeper significance of what the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 1:6) says: "Accept a teacher upon yourself." The Talmud relates several anecdotes where Rabbis of the Talmud would only teach a student after the student served him in some capacity. This was not because the Rabbi needed this service, but in order to help the student become ready to accept what he had to teach him (see Bava Kama 20b).
Read biographies of Torah sages
Nowadays, it may be difficult to develop this kind of relationship with one's teacher. But the attitude of being subservient to the teacher still applies as much as ever. The truth is that if one looks for opportunities to assist a rabbi, or a teacher, one can find many opportunities. If we take these opportunities when they present themselves, we can gain tremendous insights through such interaction. But even if someone does not have these opportunities, nowadays there are other ways to learn from the ways of Torah sages. When I studied at Gateshead Yeshiva, I heard this from Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, who was the Mashgiach there at the time. He said that by reading biographies of Torah sages, one can gain insights into their conduct in daily matters. It is interesting to note that Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto already recommended this kind of reading in his days (see Path of the Just, Chapter 21).
Pass it on to next generation
We live in a time when the moral and ethical conduct of the majority of society is at an extremely low point. If we truly want to acquire Torah, and transmit it to future generations, it is imperative that we follow the instructions of the Mishnah and make ourselves ready to serve Torah sages, so that we can learn from their ways and pass it on to the next generation.
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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