When I am asked to do a background check on a young man for a shidduch (potential marriage partner), like most people, I call his rabbi. My first question to the rabbi is, ‘How does this young man conduct himself while you are speaking?’ Does he have his head in a sefer (book), or is he paying attention to your teaching?
The Mishnah states: One may place a container beneath a leaky ceiling on Shabbos. Rashi explains that even though I have no use for this water on the holy day, the Rabbis permitted filling and discarding the containers of water, so that one’s house not be sullied by the leak.
Abaye once found that his mill had a leaky ceiling. The dripping water was beginning to ruin his millstones. He ran off to his teacher, Rabbah, for advice.
“Bring your bed into the mill,” instructed Rabbah, “and then you can remove the millstones, since they are smelly and the disgusting odour would disturb your sleep.”
Abaye sat down to think about his teacher’s response.
“I understand that when one finds oneself in a disgusting situation, one can remove the object of disgust in order to improve one’s Shabbos pleasure. But is one permitted to create a disgusting situation, as Rabbah has suggested?” he mused to himself.
In the meantime, the mill collapsed.
“Woe is me!” exclaimed Abaye, “but I got what I deserved for questioning my teacher’s ruling.”
We are blessed with a wonderful tradition that combines a Written Law, the Torah shebiKsav, with an Oral Law, the Torah shebaal Peh. While the former narrowly refers to the Scriptures chronicled by Moses and the Prophets, in a broader sense, it refers to our entire corpus of written, recorded Torah.
Our Sages explain why the Torah was given to us in both a Written Law and Oral Law format: One cannot comprehend any part of Torah without proper guidance. This lesson refers to what we call both the Written and Oral sections of the Torah. The teacher-student relationship is integral to our belief system and ultimately the chain of tradition.
One who studies the text without guidance runs the risk of failing to grasp the true meaning of the Torah. And on the flipside, one who only listens to the words of the teacher has failed in his/her obligation to toil in Torah. Torah is not designed to be served to us on a silver platter; it takes a gargantuan effort to achieve success in Torah study. One must delve into Torah; true comprehension demands sweating over it until one gains mastery and ownership.
Abaye recognized that in his effort to embrace the second aspect – the toil and ownership – he had failed in the first aspect – heeding his teacher. Sometimes the former aspect is even more difficult than the second, because it requires humility on the part of the student. Abaye couldn’t accept his teacher’s ruling – he thought he knew better. But that momentary lack of humility meant that he had forsaken an essential element of our tradition – the Oral Law relationship.
Sadly today, many of our young men and women are wanting in this area. They don’t feel the need to pay attention to the rabbi due to their mistaken belief that self-mastery is sufficient. This malaise is especially prevalent in our generation of chutzpah coupled with the advent of ‘Rabbi Google.’
If I have a Torah question, I don’t need to go to my flesh-and-blood rabbi, I can just google it.
But unfortunately such displays of a lack of respect and humility are not limited to the teacher-student relationship. Individuals who act in such a manner will do so throughout their lives, believing that they know best and they have all the answers. Such an attitude is extremely unhealthy in any situation, particularly marriage. The attribute of humility is paramount to a successful, healthy marriage. One who demonstrates that s/he lacks this trait will be difficult to live with.
Are you fully attentive when the rabbi is teaching or are you off in your own world of learning? Do you go looking for a sefer to learn ‘more important stuff’ when the rabbi gets up to give his sermon? Or do you appreciate the beauty of Torah – both the Written and the Oral?