“We are like a finger in a pit with regard to forgetfulness.”
Today’s Daf Yomi reminded me of how fortunate I am to have studied with teachers when I was young who were not always kind, but intellectually challenging. It was through their rigor of critical analysis that I was able to find my voice. There were times when I was a young graduate student that I would return home in tears after having a carefully crafted poem torn to shreds. But I learned to be tough, withstand criticism, and keep pushing harder not for the perfect word or sentence construction, but for the most honest expression of what I wanted to communicate.
Today’s reading is a celebration of scholarship, wisdom, and language. We are presented with the poetry of numbers: eighteen and twelve. We are told that Rabbi Yohanan spent eighteen days with Rabbi Oshaya who had twelve students. The experience must have been an enlightening one for Rabbi Yohanan who “learned the heart of each and every” student, including their “nature and character” and the wisdom that each one brought to their studies. His comments are a reminder of the gift students provide a teacher through their striving for knowledge.
Rabbi Yohanan said after the eighteen days spent with Rabbi Oshaya he learned only one thing. But how can this be? Rabbi Oshaya was a great scholar with so many students that they were sitting four to each square cubit without concern for social distancing. In essence, Rabbi Yohanan was so humbled by Rabbi Oshaya’s wisdom that he dared not declare he learned much from him. He said that Rabbi Oshaya was as great in his generation as Rabbi Mei was during his time and characterized Rabbi Oshaya’s intelligence as so subtle that he could not grasp fully his wisdom. He compared his ability to absorb such knowledge to “the eye of a fine needle.”
Abaye suggests that there is a decline in the present generation’s ability to comprehend and understand discrete exegesis. This is an argument often made against the younger generation. Some say they do not apply themselves to their studies, are too distracted with worldly matters, are not as precise in their language and have less grit. We have heard it all before. Abaye says that as far as the capabilities of the present generation are concerned, they are “like a peg on the wall” with regard to their studies and “just as a peg enters a wall with difficulty, our studies penetrate our minds only with difficulty.” Rava says the present generation is “like a finger in wax with regard to logical reasoning” as a “finger is not easily pushed into wax, and it extracts nothing from the wax.”
Rabbi Yehuda quotes Rav when he reminds us that language is the primary conduit through which we acquire knowledge and that it is through precision of speech that we grow and evolve. He compares the people of Judea who were very precise with the people of Galilee “who were not particular in their speech.” The lack of precision in speech is a barrier in acquiring knowledge that will endure.
The importance of a teacher is emphasized and we are told that the people of Judea, in addition to their precision of language, studied from one teacher who was consistent in his approach, while the people of Galilee shopped around for knowledge from many teachers, who confused them with “a combination of approaches.”
Today’s reading is a reminder of the impact our teachers have upon us and how we carry what we learned from them throughout our lives. As a former MFA student in Creative Writing, today’s discussion of the importance of precision of language resonated deeply with me. The voice of the Gemara provides us with an example of precise speech: when someone is asked about the color of his cloak, if he is from Judea, he will answer that the color is “like beets on the ground,” which provides a precise description of a green tinted garment.
I have had the great privilege to study with teachers who beat me up at times but pushed me to be precise in the language I select to express myself. This posting is in memory of the great teachers I studied with who are no longer with us: Jarod Ramsey, Anthony Hecht, Joseph Brodsky, and Galway Kinnell, who pushed and pushed and pushed until I could find my authentic voice deep within me.