Pirke Avot, verse four: thirst

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Now we come to the third portion of the saying of Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah, in Jacob Neusner’s translation:

Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received [the Torah] from them. Yose ben Yoezer says:
Let your house be a gathering place for sages.
And wallow in the dust of their feet,
And drink in their words with gusto.

Or with thirst, if you are out of gusto.

There’s a story about Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest of the early scholars, and one of the men who formed Rabbinic Judaism. Akiva was a shepherd, an am ha-aretz, man of the earth, an ignoramus. When he was forty years old, he didn’t know how to read or write. Later he describes himself like this: “When I was still a common (ignorant) man, I used to say: ‘If I could lay my hands on a scholar I would bite him like an ass,&#8217” (in Pesachim, there follows some little discussion of how a donkey bite differs from a dog bite). When he turned forty, he suddenly decided to turn to study. He went to a school and sat down with the children. The instructor showed him the aleph-bet, and he learned it. The instructor asked him to write it backward, and he learned that. Then he learned Leviticus, and all the laws in that. Then he proceeded to learn the tanach by heart. Then he went to Rabbi Eliezar and Rabbi Joshua, sat at their feet, and asked to be taught the Mishnah. When they taught him one ruling, he went away and thought about it, and when he thought about it, he entered a whole new realm of thinking. He saw that a thing was written one way and not a different way, and that there was meaning in that, that a thing was written in one place and not a different place, and there was meaning in that, and when he returned to his teachers, they were astonished. Rabbi Tarphon, another of his teachers, said of him that he could take all the drops of water and make them into a mighty stream. He became the mightiest, richest, and most influential of the Rabbis of the first century, and his decisions, his traditions and his habits of thinking are the heart of the Talmud.

If Akiba, who at the age of forty did not know aleph from tav, could become the sagest of the sages, what could we not do, starting now, knowing what we already know, if we were to drink as thirstily from Torah as he did? And it began when he sat with the children to learn. He was so thirsty for Torah, he put aside his pride, he sat at the feet of his teachers, in the dust of their feet, and he drank and he drank and he drank.

It is also said that in the endtime, those of us who neglected our study when we were alive will have to explain that neglect to Akiva himself. I would not be looking forward to that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Pirke Avot, verse four: thirst

  1. Michael

    Not to belabor the substitution of “then” for “and”, but the thirst is created by the wallowing in dust. Create an atmosphere of learning, and you will create a demand for learning.

    I like that our obligation is not just to gather the sages, and not just to accept bits of their wisdom, but to fully engage in what they say.


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