Avot In Vivo
It is my honor this year to be teaching a weekly after school mishmar class in my school. As the year has gone on the numbers have gratifying grown and there are now about 25 people coming to the shiur. We have been going in order and are hovering around 2:11, in which Rabi Yochanan praises his students., We left of last week with a thinking question: What percentage of you is about remembering what you learn, and what part is about analyzing and coming up with insights regarding what you learned. The former was the way of Rabi Eliezer ben Hurkenus and the latter was the way of Rabi Elazar ben Arach.
One thing that emerges from the mishnah about the 5 students of Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai is how different they each were. This reflects Rabbi Yochanan himself having many facets, and therefore variant students were all able to connect to him and flourish. he did not have one way himself not did he have one image that he molded each of his students in. It is a positive statement about a teacher or leader when his followers are diverse in their personalities, styles, convictions. Judaism believes in certain absolutes and yet this mishnah reminds us that there is much room, and much need for individuality in our service of G-d.
In 3:12 the debate opens as to which is better, remembering what you learn, or being creative with the material. The Gemorah calls these two sides "Sinai" (remembering all, like a solid mountain, and Okeir Harim (one who uproots mountains). The Gemorah seems to conclude that being a storehouse of knowledge is more indispensable for the transmission of Torah and for achievement in this realm. It is with knowledge and only there that you can start off well and proceed to analyze and move forward. Rabbi Berel Wein connects this debate to the story of the tortoise and the hare. He points out that the aphorism "slow and steady wins the race," goes back to Kohelet (9:11) where Shlomo HaMelech says, "the race is not always to the swift." Those who study and gain knowledge eventually become greatly creative and more impressive and genuinely wise than those who shined at a young age for their brilliant thinking.
3:13 is assuming that one keeps Torah. And then it asks, what trait should you focus on to ensure being good- because what can keep the letters of the laws of the Torah and manage to not be a good person. The most important trait, the best insurance to being on the right path in life, concludes Rabi Yochanan ben Zakai, is having a good heart.