Last week we met Rabbi Yoḥanan’s five disciples. Maybe you remember them? First there was Eliezer, that plastered well who couldn’t lose a drop, the one that remembered everything, for better or worse. Next was Yehoshua, the man who pleases everyone, for the recognition it brings him. After him came Yose, the good boy, that one overflowing with happiness and always willing to help. Shimon was next in line, that sin-fearing lad he was, the one who’d do what’s good for fear of the punishment behind it, but he still did good things, he did. Last of them was Elazar, the over-flowing fountain, who’d be blunt and upfront but be everything you’d need him to be.
A pleasant group, wouldn’t you think? And now that we’ve reacquainted ourselves with each of them, let’s see this next lesson that Rabbi Yoḥanan has to teach.
2.12 He added this comment about his disciples:
If all the scholars of Israel were in one scale of a balance, and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was in the other, he would outweigh them all.
However, Abba Shaul, in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan, quoted him thus: If all the scholars including Eliezer ben Hyrcanus were in one scale of a balance, and Elazar ben Arakh in the other, he would outweigh them all.
Is this simple rivalry, a mere friendly competition whom no one really cares about the winner, only the game in progress? Like a university’s “friends down the road” they all love to hate, not because there’s anything worth hating, but because it adds flavor to the competition and the game?
As a teacher myself, having taught many students, I can attest that it’s easy to place a hat of favoritism over a few of them. Their work ethics, their accomplishments and growth as a student, they cling to you and fill you with a sense of pride that others just don’t bring to the table. However, as a teacher, it’s my duty to reserve these judgments and treat all of them equally, with the same enthusiasm and attention, whether they’re my favorite student or my least. So what in the world, I ask you, was Rabbi Yoḥanan thinking?
I should like to think, and so I will, that he was not judging the students themselves, but their virtues. As I alluded to last week, these students are the start of a series of ten teachings that compare and contrast the various attributes we each can possess or wish to dispossess in our human, faulted lives. They are an inventory of scales and measurements, perfectly suited for a math student foraging into the world of Statistics in only a month’s time, a vast pool of data to be collected, analyzed, and presented to an audience of peers.
The question is therefore no longer “Is Eliezer better than Elazar?” but “Is it better to be the well or the fountain?” It brings to mind a certain duality, that of introversion and extroversion, that itself brings to mind a joke I heard the other day. “How do you know a math major’s an extrovert?” he asked, and after a split moment of pondering, we all asked, “How?” He grinned and answered back, “He looks at your shoes while he’s talking.”
Never mind that, which I can safely assume at least half of you will not have laughed at, and let’s carry on.
Last week I spoke about some of the great things and not-so-great things that being either of these could bring into our lives (a good aptitude for learning, but an inclination to holding grudges; an attitude for helping others, tainted by an affronting sense of cold-hearted honesty) and said that a balance of each of these can lead us to becoming greater people in all areas of our lives. Here, however, we’re now asked to rank these virtues against the others.
So before I go any further, I ask, how would you rank them yourselves? Even better, if placed on one of these metaphorical scales, how would you weigh yourself?
Personally (an unnecessary word when speaking in the first-person that culture has concluded should be there), I find myself torn between the two. I am naturally introverted, which means I’m the receptive type, I gain energy in seclusion; I need time to recover after partaking of groups, and my mind is inherently focused inward, on understanding the self and how I think and react.
However, introversion is not to be mistaken with shyness, and as anyone who knows me well will say, I am most definitely not shy. I like being with people. I like sharing conversations and playing in groups. It’s the most exhausting thing I ever do, it just drains the life right out of me, but it’s worth it. The satisfaction of helping others in need, of teaching them when they don’t know, of just enjoying their company and learning equally from them, is a great feeling. And after I’ve taken some time to sufficiently recharge myself in solitude, I’m happy to get out there again.
Which do I think is better? At their extremes, neither is certainly any better, and yet they both seem to become exceptionally more incredible the closer they get to being in balance, but surely that isn’t an answer, is it?
You know, I hate when people ask me questions like this. What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite food? Movie? TV show? Book? How about this one, that’s nagging me an awful amount lately: Which school do you like more? The point is, I can’t answer such questions logically–and I’m a logical thinker. I see the faults in everything and when highlighting the good, no one thing can rise above the others, but instead they all float in this single range that I can’t narrow down any further because, at that point, they’re all equitable.
Most people decide favorites by feeling, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I have no personal problem with such provided that some measure of logical comparison is included somewhere. Me, however, I’m practical. When forced between two options, if both are equally good, I’d sooner choose neither if I can’t choose both. If the scales are balanced, they’ll stay that way. Feelings won’t change much.
That is, however, the whole point of this teaching, isn’t it? Feelings do change things. Abba Shaul speaks in Rabbi Yoḥanan’s stead, merely repeating what Rabbi Yoḥanan had said himself! It’s like one day I’ll say my favorite color is green, then next when I say it’s purple or orange, someone will remind me, “Didn’t you say it was green?” Why, yes, I did, and because all of these exist in that same range of comparable equitude, my feelings from any one moment to the next may decide which of them has currently bobbed up to the top. Granted, give me enough time and I’ll cycle through all of them, but that doesn’t mean I’ll like the others any less.
Feelings do change things. Feelings won’t change the facts, won’t change the logic of anything, but they do change perception (and when perception has changed, everything else will follow, but that’s a separate story). What lesson we can reap from this, I feel, is that we need to remember when we have felt differently, especially when we’re dealing with others. So this guy annoyed me yesterday, but maybe I was feeling off. Should I avoid him because of it? No, I shouldn’t. I should give him another chance, because feelings do change things, and today’s a new day, and both of us are feeling differently now, aren’t we?
This also compels me to weigh myself, and I’d like to encourage all of you to do the same. How do I feel about myself? About my accomplishments and how people perceive me? Is there something I want to change, an internal scale I’d like to tip in the other direction? We are faulted beings, for nothing is ever without flaw, but that doesn’t have to restrain us if only we seek to improve ourselves where we’re lacking.
Eliezer needs to let things out sometimes. On occasion Elazar needs to keep them in. Just because one moment we may feel one is better than the other, doesn’t mean we won’t change our minds the next time. Things change. Nothing stays the same. As Jewel says, “I need to believe that we at least can have some dignity. … That’s no excuse to be casual or to place the blame. You gotta be careful with me.”
Isn’t that the truth, don’t you think?