Pirke Avot chapter four, verse seventeen

Your Humble Blogger has access once again to a variety of resources, but they are only making matters worse. Here’s the Judah Goldin translation of today’s verse:

Rabbi Nehorai says: Betake thyself to a place of Torah and say not that it will come after thee, that thy companions will set it up for thee to master; And lean not upon thine own understanding.

The first problem is that there is no Rabbi Nehorai. We have it on good authority that R. Nehorai is actually R. Nehemiah, and that it is one of those misheard name things that sometimes happens. We also have it on good authority that R. Nehorai is actually R. Meir, who was in fact named Nehorai, but was called Meir, both of them meaning light, more or less. And we have it on good authority that R. Nehorai is actually R. Elazar ben Arach.

The last of those is the best story, I think. You may remember Elazar ben Arach from verse 2:19 last summer, but I made a reference to his story as one of Yochanan ben Zacchai’s disciples before that. He isn’t the Eliezar, whose wonderful story I told at that time, but the Elazar ben Arach who I mentioned thusly:

It turns out that Elazar ben Arach, the ever-flowing spring, dried up, or the water ran foul; instead of going to Javneh with Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai, he chose to go to Emmaus, where is wife’s family was from, and there he was cut off from the sages, where he forgot all his Torah. He turns up in the Talmud only here and as a warning not to separate yourself from the community (one f’r’ex for that fairly frequent warning), and only a handful of other places. Yet at the time, before the Destruction, he was famous.

There’s more to the story. Well, there are a bunch of versions of the story, and one of them connects him with this verse. It seems that when Elazar ben Arach went to Emmaus with his wife and her family rather than to Yavneh with the rest of the gang, he thought that he could study and increase his knowledge by himself. This proved extremely difficult. Then he thought that scholars might leave Yavneh and visit him in Emmaus, now and then, without his having to make the trip. Alas, this didn’t happen. When, as an old man, he finally gave in and went to Yavneh, not only did his colleagues find that his knowledge had failed to increase, not only did his colleagues find that he had forgotten much that he once knew, but evidently he had suffered a stroke of some kind (I am guessing), because even the task of reading the text was beyond him.

The story doesn’t end there, thank goodness, with Rabbi Elazar, the overflowing spring, staring baffled angry and uncomprehending at the scroll, because at the moment the assembled sages saw his plight, they were moved to pray for mercy, and he was miraculously cured. His memory came back to him all at once, as if a door was opened into a room that had long been dark. Thus he was called Nehorai, the light; the verses attributed to “Rabbi Nehorai” are actually those said by Rabbi Elazar after he had lost and regained his memory.

Well, and that story is obviously made up to illustrate today’s verse: go to Yavneh, rather than Emmaus, or face the fate of Elazar ben Achar—except of course that you may not be deemed worthy of a miracle.

Your Humble Blogger was talking with an alumna of Bryn Mawr some years ago, about libraries and learning, and she said that a Mawrtyr always felt that there was nothing she couldn’t learn, given access to a good enough library. I retorted that a Swarthmorean always felt that there was nothing he or she could not learn, given access to a good enough library and other Swatfolk. I have told this story before on this Tohu Bohu but not for more than a year, and if I’m not going to tell my stories more than once, I am going to have to pack up shop altogether. I mean. After a few thousand posts, there’s bound to be some repetition.

But the point of telling the story at this time is that I do think this is what Nehorai is getting at, and more than that: there is a certain attitude that comes from often persuading and being persuaded by people you respect that is actually a spiritual attitude, one of humility and community together.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.