Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rabbi Eliezer the Genius

Rabbi Akiva, as Maya described in the last post, became a great Torah scholar through hard work: he studied each letter methodically and was unashamed of beginning at the very beginning with his young son. Avot d’Rabbi Natan sets him in opposition to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus. If Rabbi Akiva is a model of a scholar who works hard and methodically, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus is the model of the natural genius. When he was twenty-two, he had never studied Torah before, but he decided to go study with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. His father (the classic disapproving father of the genius narrative) told him that he wasn’t going anywhere until he finished plowing a full furrow. Eliezer woke up early, plowed the furrow and left to go to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who quickly predicted that he would be a great Torah scholar.

After that, his father, Hurcanus, heard that he was studying Torah, and planned to come to Jerusalem to disinherit Eliezer. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was giving a public lecture. Hurcanus came and sat down in the crowd. In the middle of his lecture, Rabban Yochanan looked at Rabbi Eliezer and told him to teach. Eliezer said that he couldn’t, but his teacher pushed him, and when he started to teach, he said things that no one had ever heard before. At everything he said, Rabban Yochanan said “I have learned the truth.” When the lecture was over, Hurcanus stood up and announced that, although he had come to disinherit Rabbi Eliezer, he would actually give all of his possessions to him and disinherit his brothers.

It feels almost like a fairy tale: his father disapproved of him, he left home, he had special talents, his father eventually recognized them, and he became famous and powerful. Avot d’Rabbi Natan uses this story about Rabbi Eliezer as the example for “Hevei mitabek be’afar ragleihem”—“sit in the dust at [your teachers’] feet.” I’m not sure how exactly he did that here—it seems like he rose up to teaching his teacher very quickly. Is it just that he briefly refused to teach instead of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai? That doesn’t seem to me like enough to make him the example of that principle.

With Rabbi Akiva, there’s an implied moral: behave like him and you, too, could be a great scholar some day. But most of us will never get up with no preparation and teach amazing and startling things that will make all of our greatest teachers exclaim over us, so is there a message to this story? One thing we could learn is that, despite Rabbi Eliezer’s natural talent, if he had not decided that he wanted to study Torah, no one would have ever discovered him. It’s a good encouragement to try new forms of study, even if we have to abandon our plowing temporarily to do it. This reminds me of one of Maya’s (and my, but it was hers first) favorite psukim, from Megillat Esther: “Umi yodea im la’et kazot higat lemalchut?”—“Who knows if it is for this moment that you became queen?” I use this pasuk as a balance to my natural instinct to bide my time forever and not do anything: it reminds me that sometimes, we have opportunities that are risky, but offer a lot of potential good and may never be available again.  

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