Shiur #13: Maharal on Avot - Perek 2, Mishna 6

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein


A bur cannot be a yer'ei cheit (one who fears sin), nor an am ha-aretz be a chasid (one who, in some way, goes beyond minimal duty in fulfillment of God's will).  A bashful person cannot become learned, and an overly exacting person cannot be a teacher; and one who engages excessively in business cannot become wise.  And, in a place where there are no other men (or people), try to be a man.


This mishna and the next continue the statements of Hillel.  Interestingly, Maharal does not comment on the connection between these sayings and the previous mishna.  This, despite the mishna's beginning with the words "Hu haya omeir," which Maharal had said was an indication that we should connect the words of this mishna to the previous one.  (I guess complete consistency is hard to maintain.)




Maharal asks several questions about this text.  First, he questions the difference between bur and am ha-aretz - since both do not know Torah, should they not both lack the ability to be either a yer'ei cheit or a chasid?  Here, the question itself is interesting, since all commentators had differentiated between the two, meaning they had defined a bur as having different lacks from an am ha-aretz.  In some way, those lacks explained the differences in the levels of worship of God from which they were barred.  As we will see in his answer, Maharal assumes (throughout the mishna) that the bur and the am ha-aretz reflect two different aspects of the same lack of knowledge of Torah.


In the second clause, Maharal rejects as too obvious the easy interpretation, that a bashful person will not ask the necessary questions to become learned and that a kapdan (an overly exacting person), will be too filled with anger to teach properly.  In terms of business being a problem for wisdom, he wonders why business is singled out - if the issue is time, should not the mishna just have said, "and any one who spends too much time on other matters will never become wise?"  He also recalls an earlier mishna that simply said, "One who has too many possessions increases worry in his life," but did not see that as necessarily preventing the acquisition of wisdom.  Finally, Maharal wonders about the connection of the last clause to the previous ones.




Maharal explains that lack of Torah knowledge leads to two different types of problems.  First, without that knowledge, a person's intellect will not be developed properly, and it is a properly developed intellect that leads to fear of sin.  When the mishna therefore says "a bur cannot be a yer'ei cheit," it means that the bur has an undeveloped intellect, which prevents true fear of sin.


Another flaw created by a lack of Torah knowledge is an excessive connection to the physical.  As we will see later in this mishna, Maharal recognizes the vital necessity of the physical for a human being, but the key to growth in one's relationship to God is to limit the physical to the minimum possible and to transcend one's physicality for the sake of higher goals.  That ability - self-transcendence - is called chasidut, and focusing too much on one's physical needs and desires is the quality of an am ha-aretz.


In Maharal's reading of this mishna, then, a person who lacks Torah knowledge will generally be both a bur and an am ha-aretz, lacking both in the intellectual sophistication to avoid sin and the self-transcendent ability to limit one's physical wants, needs, and desires for the sake of higher goals.  The reason the mishna splits them, Maharal believes, is just to clarify which elements in the lack of Torah knowledge lead to which flaws in the person.




Since Maharal rejected the easy reading of "lo ha-baishan lameid (a bashful person will not become learned)," as too obvious, he suggests that the quality of baishanut, of reticence, or not aggressively thrusting oneself into a discussion, is itself a quality that prevents one from acquiring great Torah knowledge.  The Torah is - in Maharal's phrase, based on Scripture - an eish dat, a fire.  The way to acquire, master, and conquer fire is not by being bashful, but by taking firm hold of it.  It is the quality of baishanut itself that for Maharal makes it difficult to become a sage, not the lack of questions that result from one's baishanut.


An aside: Maharal's point may be accurate and still not mean that one has to be generally aggressive to acquire great Torah knowledge.  I have known many great Torah scholars who were, in their interactions with others, retiring and even self-effacing.  Yet in the context of discussions of Torah, they were exacting and aggressive in their desire to master the texts of tradition and to seek the truth as they knew it.  One can compartmentalize one's aggression and save it only for Torah issues - but Maharal's view of the importance of a certain aggressiveness in the process of Torah study seems to me to be right on the mark.  In addition, the student has to know when and how to allow that aggression to be expressed even within the realm of Torah study.




Given Torah's fiery qualities, we might have expected that a teacher who was a kapdan would be the best match - the fire of his exacting nature would mesh well with the eish dat of Torah.  In fact, one of the teachers to whom I owe the most in terms of both a style of learning (both in Torah and Jewish history, to the extent that it is not subsumed under Torah) and a love of learning, was very much a kapdan.  His exacting nature taught me the importance of care, precision, and hard work in one's Torah study (I only leave out his name here because I do not know that he would wish to be known as a kapdan).  There are those who have portrayed Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ("The Rav"), Ztllh"h, as having been somewhat of a kapdan, yet he was clearly a master teacher.  Why would the mishna negate the value of kapdanut, especially in Maharal's picture of Torah as fire?


Maharal says that the fire of the kapdan and the fire of Torah, when combined, can join to overwhelm the student, and is therefore a problem.  That is as far as he goes, but I would suggest that it means that the kapdanut of the teacher is a problem only for those students who would be so overwhelmed.  For those who can tolerate the combined fire (who will not be burned by the coals of the sages), a teacher who is a kapdan can be the best possible teacher.


To go back to the Rav, Ztllh"h, for a second, we all know the many students who benefited greatly from the his teaching.  Yet there were also some, particularly in the Rav's younger years, who found his anger a problem and did not enjoy the experience of studying with him.  (I remember my rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, R. Ezra Bick, telling me that the Rav would always apologize to a student after an outburst - he said they used to have a pool in the back of the shiur as to how long it would take the Rav to apologize.  In his own case, he said there was one time the Rav blew up at him for a suggestion he made during shiur and, in contrition, for the rest of the semester would call on him as soon as he raised his hand and listen to his ideas with great interest.)  Combining the fire of Torah with the fire of the teacher's kapdanut makes for a bigger fire; for those able to tolerate the heat, they are warmed that much better.  The problem, however, is for those who are burned by the experience.


I would also point out that Maharal's interpretation suggests that the most accurate translation of "Lo ha-kapdan melameid" is that "A kapdan will not make a good teacher for all students."  It does not imply, however, that the kapdan cannot be a good teacher for some students.




As background to the mishna's claim about business involvement preventing great wisdom, Maharal notes a well-known interpretation of the verse, "Not in the sky is it (Torah)...nor across the sea" (Devarim 30:12-13).  According to Rava in the Gemara, the verse means that Torah is not found in those who are gasei ruach (think highly of themselves), such that they see themselves as being higher than others.  Maharal says that the problem with haughtiness is that it involves accenting the physical - one who is intellectually oriented will not be haughty (for various reasons).


The assumption that focus on the physical is what keeps one from Torah knowledge explains the problem with business.  Maharal says that businessmen necessarily involve themselves with measuring materials, calculating distances and weights, and so on.  In focusing so consistently on the physical, they prevent themselves from allowing their minds the freedom to develop intellectually.  Note that this does not mean that one focuses exclusively on business, and therefore cannot become wise, because that is obvious.  The claim here is that over-involvement in business trains a person to view the world in physical terms, and that view itself is a problem in terms of developing wisdom.


This is not to say that Maharal is anti-business.  He notes that the mishna only worries about excessive involvement (ha-marbeh bi-shora); some business activity is necessary, since humans are in fact physical beings.  It is just important to place that business involvement in its proper place and to give the intellectual side of a person its proper due.  I would add that Maharal's point works even if we do not see business as inherently focusing on the physical.  Even if, for example, business is more about identifying a niche in a market and filling it, that mode of thinking might work antithetically to the project of attaining true wisdom (understanding what people want and how to convince them to buy it from you is a sharply different way of thinking from trying to live up to what Hashem wants for the world).




Maharal does not add a great deal to the interpretation of this clause - he takes it to mean that it is particularly important to engage in a certain positive activity when others are not.  He does, however, see it as referring to the person as a whole - that a whole person, once having placed the physical in proper perspective, developed Torah knowledge, etc., must act in the world as well.


He thus sees Hillel as having taken each part of the human: the physical, the monetary, the soul (Maharal sees anger and how to deal with it as qualities of the soul), and the intellect, and put them in their proper place.  After dealing with each part, he then prescribes for the whole human being (taking actions of chesed, etc.), which Maharal says is the correct way for a wise person to teach others, by dealing with the parts and then the whole.



     This, then, explains the connection of this part of the mishna to the previous ones - the earlier parts of the mishna discussed a specific aspect of human life, while the end summarizes one's responsibility to act in the world.  Maharal is therefore suggesting that a true teacher will focus not only on the various parts, but at the end bring them together in a whole.