Acquiring Torah 24: Three Lessons
Rabbi Joshua bar Chananiah remarked: No one has ever had the better of me except a woman, a little boy and a little girl. What was the incident with the woman? I was once staying at an inn where the hostess served me with beans. On the first day I ate all of them leaving nothing. On the second day too l left nothing. On the third day she over seasoned them with salt, and, as soon as I tasted them, I withdrew my hand. ‘My Master,’ she said to me, ‘why do you not eat?’
(Not wanting to embarrass her,) ‘I have already eaten,’ I replied: ‘earlier in the day.’
‘You should then,’ she said to the lie, ‘have withdrawn your hand from the bread.’
‘My Master,’ she continued, ‘is it possible that you left the dish today as compensation (my tip) for the former meals (when you didn’t leave anything for me), for have not the Sages laid down: Nothing is to be left (by the server) in the pot but something must be left in the plate (as a ‘tip’ for the server)?’
What was the incident with the little girl? I was once on a journey and, observing a path across a field, I made my way through it, when a little girl called out to me, ‘Master! Is not this part of the field?’ — ‘No,’ I replied: ‘this is a trodden path’
‘Robbers like yourself,’ she retorted: ‘have trodden it down.’
What was the incident with the little boy? I was once on a journey when I noticed a little boy sitting at a crossroad. ‘By what road,’ I asked him, ‘do we go to the town?’ — ‘This one’, he replied: ‘is short but long and that one is long but short.’ I proceeded along the ‘short but long’ road. When I approached the town I discovered that it was hedged in by gardens and orchards. Turning back I said to him, ‘My son, did you not tell me that this road was short?’ — ‘And,’ he replied: ‘did I not also tell you: But long?’ I kissed him upon his head and said to him, ‘Happy are you, O Israel, all of you are wise, both young and old.’ (Eiruvin 53b)
Rabbi Joshua “lost” three arguments to people who were not great Torah scholars, and he learned how to discover great wisdom by listening to everyone with respect. He was unaware of “tipping,” and ate all the food on his plate. He wasn’t familiar with the custom of leaving food on the plate for the server to eat. He knew the Sages instruction, “Nothing is to be left in the pot but something must be left in the plate,” but, never having been served by a waiter, had not learned to apply the law. Rabbi Joshua had to experience the situation to fully appreciate the Sages’ teaching.
Rabbi Joshua looked at a path cutting through a field and assumed that, so well-trodden a path must be public. Until a young girl said, ‘Robbers like yourself, have trodden it down.’ People who assume that because “everyone does it” it’s permissible. The young girl reminded the great sage that we must carefully examine everything we do, without relying on what others do.
Rabbi Joshua did not pay close attention to the words of the little boy. He heard what he wanted, and after realizing his mistake, understood that had he carefully listened, he could have asked the boy what he meant and avoided his wasted trip.
The true sage is always open to learning from everyone. He appreciates that he must apply all he learns in practical ways for it to become real and part of him. He knows that he must evaluate his actions based on Torah; not on what other people do. And, he realizes that a true sage, who wants to learn from all, must learn how to carefully listen to everyone, whether a waitress, a young girl, or even just a little boy.