Acquiring Torah 13: I’m Desperate
Rabbi Akiva gave five instructions to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai when Rabbi Akiva was incarcerated in prison (See Berachot 61b): Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Master! Teach me Torah!” Rabbi Akiva said, “I will not teach you (to protect his student from being imprisoned).” Rabbi Shimon said, “If you do not teach me, I will tell Yochai, my father, and he will report you to the government (for more serious crimes than those for which you were imprisoned [Maharsha])!” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “My son! More than the calf wishes to suck, the cow wishes to suckle.” Rabbi Shimon said to him, “But who is in danger? Is it not the calf (the student) that is in danger?” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “1. If you want to get yourself choked, hang yourself from a tall tree. 2. And when you teach your son, teach him with a book that has been corrected from mistakes. 3. Do not cook in a pot in which your friend has cooked. 4. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and profit handsomely, he should eat the produce and will have capital. 5. If one wishes to perform a Mitzvah and have a pure body as well, he should marry a woman, and to him, children!” (Pesachim 112a-b)
Rabbi Shimon said, “If you do not teach me, I will tell Yochai, my father, and he will report you to the government (for more serious crimes than those for which you were imprisoned [Maharsha])!” This patently absurd threat is understood as Rabbi Shimon’s way of expressing the intensity of his desire to learn from Rabbi Akiva. Perhaps we can see more in what we have described (Acquiring Torah 12) as a coded conversation:
Rabbi Shimon’s father, Yochai, was known to be close to the Roman authorities. He was, what was known in Europe and Russia as an Askan, someone who dealt with the government to help his brethren. Rabbi Shimon understood that Rabbi Akiva was demanding that Rabbi Shimon assume a leadership role. However, “he will report you to the government for more serious crimes than those for which you were imprisoned,” meaning, we will constantly be accused of crimes far more serious than studying Torah. It will not only be the Torah scholars who will assume leadership roles, but the Yochais, the askanim, as well. “Teach me,” said Rabbi Shimon, “how to guide the people who are not Torah scholars, who will confront ever more complex issues. This is the most important Torah issue: How it guides our responses to all issues!”
It is impossible to truly acquire Torah if studied as something separate from every aspect of life. Our approach must be Rabbi Shimon’s, who insisted that even the Yochais of the future will need Torah’s guidance.