Shiur 18: Respecting Torah Teachers

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

Shiur 18: Respecting Torah Teachers

By Rav Moshe Taragin

This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.

This shiur is dedicated in honor of the Bar Mitzva of Adam Goldman by Ann Goldman, Frederick Stone and Family.

The third mishna of the sixth perek underlines the relationship between a student and a teacher by demanding respect even of someone who taught minimal Torah. To showcase this responsibility, the mishna cites the precedent of Dovid and Achitofel. Though the latter was involved in the rebellion of Avshalom (Shmuel II 15), Dovid still expressed respect for him by referring to him as "alufi u'meyuda'i" (my teacher and my friend). If Dovid could demonstrate such respect for such a flawed figure, we should certainly display similar honor for our teachers. The mishna establishes an important ethic by providing hyperbole. Dovid Ha-melekh (King Dovid) recognized the value of respecting Torah providers and he EVEN behaved in this manner with an evil individual who had defied his authority and joined Avshalom's mutiny.

Interestingly, the mishna does not elaborate as to WHAT Dovid learned from Achitofel, nor does it directly reference the stage at which Dovid referred to him in such exalted terms. A parallel gemara in Sanhedrin (106b) points to perek fifty-five of Tehilim, in which Dovid addresses Achitofel as 'enosh k'erki alufi u'meyuda'i' (a man of my values, my teacher and friend). Interestingly, the gemara speaks of a progression in Dovid's relationship with Achitofel. Initially, Dovid refers to him as his teacher, subsequently as his friend, and finally as his student. Perhaps this progression mirrors the deterioration of Achitofel's behavior. Initially, he was a respected member of Dovid's advisory staff (see Divrei Ha-yamim I 27) and, evidently, instructed him in Torah as well. Once he took a decision to rebel against Dovid's authority, perhaps the latter could no longer refer to him as his teacher. Of course the mishna in Avot does not discern any change in their relationship, posing Dovid's reverence for Achitofel as the prime example of respect which should be displayed to any and every Torah teacher in our lives.

A. Rashi's elaboration

Though neither the mishna nor the gemara details the actual Torah which Achitofel taught to Dovid, Rashi cites a midrash which points to two interesting remarks. Witnessing Dovid studying in private, Achitofel urged him to study with partners and even invited Dovid to study with him. In addition, Achitofel once viewed Dovid walking into the beit midrash (study hall) with a slight trace of pride. Achitofel scolded him, reminding him of the holy nature of a study hall and the need to sense yirat sha'mayimin (fear of God) in God's presence. The midrash is confident of these two instances, in part, because of the language Dovid employs in Tehilim when he extols Achitofel. After referring to him as "alufi u'meyuda'i" he exclaims "asher yachdav namtik sod" (together we will luxuriate over secrets) – presumably a reference to their shared Torah experience due to Achitofel's guidance.

In addition, Dovid says 'bi-veit Elokim n'halech bi-ragesh' (we will enter the house of Hashem with terror) - presumably a reference to the proper method of entry which Achitofel had encouraged. Intriguingly, we witness a less polished Dovid Ha-melech being schooled in certain aspects of the talmud Torah (learning Torah) experience, by a person who would one day violate halacha, rebel against his authority, and commit suicide.

In his comments to Sanhedrin, the Maharsha cites a different gemara in which Achitofel lessons Dovid and wonders why this instance is not included in the midrash which Rashi cites. The gemara in Makkot (11a) describes Dovid constructing the foundation of the temple. Accidentally, he removes a rock which had been placed to stem the waters of the flood thousands of years earlier. Threatened by the release of these uncontrollable waters, Dovid solicits solutions. Achitofel authorizes him to place an amulet with Hashem's name upon these waters and thereby still them. Why doesn't the midrash cite this example as well?

Perhaps the midrash merely cites instances in which Achitofel provided MORAL instruction to Dovid. Though his advice in halting the flooding waters was crucial, it provided little moral guidance to Dovid. It was practical advice – crucial – but nonetheless practical. By contrast, his advice in the two instances cited by the midrash yield important moral value about personal deportment and Torah study. Learning exclusively without a partner is not just practically unsound in that it does not allow the contribution of others. It also resonates with moral connotations; it implies self-sufficiency in Torah study which both bespeaks personal arrogance and ignores the infinite nature of Torah. Walking into the beit midrash with either a swagger or in too comfortable a fashion ignores the awe which should emerge from encountering God through His Torah. The midrash cites examples of a teacher providing lasting moral guidance.

If this explanation is correct then the message of the mishna MAY be significantly conditioned. Dovid only displayed reverence to Achitofel because the latter provided ethical counseling and NOT because he taught him Torah. Ideally, a PIOUS teacher who teaches any form of Torah is deserving of our respect; but a flawed teacher (as Achitofel) may only merit reverence if he teaches lessons of lasting moral value. This is certainly NOT the basic reading of the mishna, and even from a purely logical standpoint we might question why pure Torah knowledge doesn't warrant the type of reverence which moral instruction demands.

Rashi himself in Makkot claims that Dovid independently was aware of the permissibility of employing an amulet to plug the flooding waters, but felt uncomfortable issuing a ruling in the presence of his teacher; he therefore asked Achitofel to express his opinion. If, indeed, Dovid knew this halacha independently he would not feel compelled to extol Achitofel for this information. If this were true then the mishna's demand would indeed be universal – all forms of Torah instruction require demonstration of honor.

B. Defining 'Reverence'

Though the mishna's requirement would appear to be straightforward – displaying honor to Torah teachers, the conclusion of the mishnah seems to issue a different message. It asserts that the kavod (reverence) we should provide Torah teachers is 'Torah.' The simple reading of the mishna suggests that the greatest honor we might show a teacher is our continued interest in studying his Torah. It may ALSO require us to show him personal respect in general interaction, but it certainly highlights the importance of our continued pursuit of his instruction. Though the Me'iri does adopt this reading of Rashi, in his comments to the mishna he reinterprets the final passages of the mishna in a manner which preserves the basic reading of the mishna. We are meant to demonstrate personal reverence to Torah teachers; when the mishna adds that true honor is Torah it is not recommending the FORM of honor we demonstrate as much as detailing the REASON we are providing such honor. Our teachers deserve our reverence BECAUSE of their Torah guidance, but they deserve PERSONAL honor and not just continued interest in their teachings.