The Better Teacher: Thought or Experience?

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Chaim:  Through different experiences, man comes to his realization that Torah is true, and that it should be fully accepted as our stronghold. Sometimes, a calamity or great success is the turning point for one person. And sometimes, abstract thought alone convinces others to follow Torah. Does it matter how we come to this realization? Is one more lasting and steadfast?      

Rabbi: Talmud Sanhedrin101b discusses Hezekiah's Torah education that is attributed to him as having reached the entire world. Yet, his son Mennashe did not turn to God, despite all of Hezekiah's attempts to teach him. What finally brought Mennashe around to following God, was his military loss, his eventual prayer to God, and his ultimate restoration of power through God. This turned Mennashe towards God. 

This Talmudic portion commenced with the account of Rabbi Eliezer's illness, and the four elders who visited him. The first three elders offered words of comfort by saying he was better than rain, the sun, or parents. For these three are but in this world, while Rabbi Eliezer is good for the nation of Israel in this world and in the next world. Rabbi Akiva offered a different consolation, "Afflictions are beloved"[1]. Rabbi Eliezer responded, "Strengthen me [help me sit up on the bed] so I might listen to the words of Akiva my student who says 'afflictions are beloved'." 

Rabbi Akiva intended to offer his teacher Rabbi Eliezer his perspective of afflictions: they might be painful, but nevertheless, they benefit our soul. It would seem Rabbi Akiva said this as Rabbi Eliezer was stricken with an afflicting illness, that he might use this opportunity for growth. Rabbi Eliezer too, gravitated towards Rabbi Akiva's words, more than the three other elders. Apparently he too saw Rabbi Akiva's point as more intriguing, and perhaps 'beneficial', while the others were only adulations, offering no opportunity for improvement.

We learn that at times, man must endure trials that help him grow. Abraham's sacrifice of his precious son Isaac is an example of the greatest magnitude. Without this experience, Abraham would not have demonstrate in action his true capacity of love for God. Mankind would not have learned that such sacrifice is attainable. But this case is unlike Mennashe, as Abraham possessed no sin or flaw that required "correction". Abraham's case was one of pure improvement, not correction. 

Mennashe had to endure his trial, but he rose to a higher level. Joseph and Moses too endured troubles until reaching perfection. In contrast, Jacob saw a flaw in his personality, and was able to correct it through contemplation alone. Thus, he was given the name Israel, indicating his ability to conquer his flaws, without requiring external stimuli. 

When one is aware of his shortcomings, he has all he needs to correct himself. But when man is unaware, God may step in – if he is so deserving[2] – to assist in his perfection, enlightening man to areas requiring his correction. But even at those times, man can disregard God's directives and remain corrupt, as seen with Cain.

However, it appears that in all cases, man must ultimately come to a new, intellectual realization, if he is truly to perfect himself. For "perfection" refers to the realm of our souls, what we are defined by centrally; that which enables us to see truths, and accept with full conviction. Although perfection is measured by our actions and not mere thought, the conviction must arise in our minds.

Which is more lasting and steadfast: experience or abstract conviction? It depends on the individual. But this is a question of the starting point. Ultimately, it is the realization in our minds that something is true, that can offer us unwavering commitment. For even experience does not end with the physical event, but culminates in an abstract truth grasped only with the mind...if we think about it.

[1] "For they atone for your sins" (Last Rashi, Sanhedrin 101a)

[2] "For those who God loves, does He rebuke" (Proverbs 3:12) Meaning, God offers rebuke to those who are on the level to act on such direction. Such people are termed "those who God loves". He loves them, since they are striving to love Him.