Rabbah bar Bar Chanah said, “Why are the words of Torah compared to fire? As it is said, Is not My word like fire, says Adonai (Jeremiah 23:29). This is to say: Just as fire does not burn alone [without fuel], so too words of Torah are not retained [by one who studies] alone.” This is what R. Yose bar Chanina said: “What is the meaning of the verse: A sword is on the lonely and they shall be fools (Jeremiah 50:36)? A sword is on the enemies of Torah scholars who occupy themselves with Torah all alone. What is more, they will become stupid, as it is said, they shall become fools. And not only that, but they will fall into sin: It is written here, and they shall be fools, and it is written elsewhere, Because we have been foolish and because we have sinned (Numbers 12:11). If you wish, you can prove it from this: The princes of Tzo’an [Tanis] have been fools…which will lead Egypt astray (Isaiah 19:13).”
Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said, “Why are the words of Torah compared to a tree, as it is said, It is a tree of life to those who grasp it (Proverbs 3:18)? This is to say: Just as a small piece of wood can ignite a larger piece of wood, so too younger students of Torah can sharpen the minds of older ones.” This is what R. Chanina said: “I have learned much from my teachers, and from my colleagues even more than from my teachers, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.”
The Rabbis revel in metaphors, as do we all. In addressing the value of Torah learning, they employ the metaphors of fire and firewood, but then make an unexpected shift to articulating surprising messages about how we should engage in Torah learning and who our best teachers may turn out to be.
What does it mean that Torah is like fire—but not because of it has power? What does it mean that Torah is like a tree—but not because of it is strong and grows?
Two metaphors for Torah are offered: fire and firewood. Rabbah bar Bar Chanah, quoting a verse from Jeremiah, compares Torah to fire, but not to the end we might expect: providing light or warmth, or as a symbol of power. Rather, he makes the point that a flame alone—without fuel to sustain it—is quickly extinguished. The fuel for Torah learning is a study partner. Taking the metaphor a step further, R. Yose bar Chanina cites a verse from Jeremiah that warns that foolish Babylonian magicians (badim) are in danger (symbolized by the sword). R. Yose reads badim as coming from the same root as bod’dim, meaning “alone.” In this way, he interprets the verse to characterize those who study alone as “enemies of Torah scholars.” It is not that studying by oneself makes one stupid (or: foolish), but rather that studying with a chevruta partner is far superior: someone who will ask you questions, challenge your ideas, share their ideas and interpretations sharpens your mind and, together with another, many more ideas will be generated. R. Yose suggests yet another danger in studying alone: falling into sin. He offers as proof two verses. A verse from Numbers includes both the terms “foolish” and “sin,” thereby supporting a connection. A verse from Isaiah says the foolish actions of the princes of Tanis led Egypt astray, i.e., into sin. R. Yose does not tell us to which sins those who study Torah alone are particularly susceptible, but perhaps he believes that our connections with others engaged in Torah keep us on a straight path in life. Like Rabbah bar Bar Chanah, R. Yose's purpose is to encourage us to find a study partner.
Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak offers another metaphor for Torah—the tree, which he grounds in a famous verse from Proverbs that is recited following a public Torah reading: It is a tree of life to those who grasp it; whoever holds on to it is happy (Proverbs 3: 18). Like Rabbah bar Bar Chanah, he pivots in a surprising direction. We might expect him to tell us that, like a tree, Torah is living, growing and strong, or that it provides people with metaphorical shade and comfort. Instead, Rav Nachman notes that a small piece of firewood (a young scholar) can ignite a large piece of firewood (an older, more knowledgable and accomplished) scholar. We are accustomed to thinking that elders possess store piles of wisdom and knowledge they impart to the young, but Rav Nachman flips this assumption on its head. He affirms that young scholars have bright, new ideas that can sharpen the minds of their teachers and elders, because older scholars are fully capable of generating new ideas.
This section is capped off with a famous teaching of R. Chanina that inverts a classic presumption that teaching flows from teachers to students. In the best of all possible worlds, it is a dynamic, two-way street: you learn plenty from your teachers, but more from your colleagues because you sit together and challenge one another, and even more from your students because they ask more questions and challenge you with bright, new ideas.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Who are the teachers from whom you have learned the most? Why were they your best teachers? If you are a teacher, what have you learned from your students?
- Many of us grew up in an educational setting in which partner learning was not only not encouraged, but even forbidden (“Keep your eyes on your own paper!”). Consider this teaching: Yehoshua b. Perachyah said: Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a study partner, and judge each person for merit (Pirkei Avot 1:6) The Jewish way of learning is with a partner, a reciprocal give and take. How might you find yourself a study partner or small group for Jewish learning or another type of learning in which you engage?
- How do you understand this teaching: "The Sages said: Whenever [students of Torah] would sit, involved in words of Torah, they would seem as though they are vengeful of one another, and when they part, they would seem as though they were lovers from their youth.” (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 1:1)