Acquiring Torah 8: A Dose of Humility
Rabbi Tarfon was sitting and asked this question: What is the reason for the difference in law between what is offered before the Omer and what is offered before the Two Loaves?
Said Judah b. Nehemiah before him, No; you can say that what is offered before the Omer is invalid for the prohibition of the new crop does not admit of any exception to the private individual, but can you say so of what is offered before the Two Loaves, seeing that the prohibition does admit of an exception to the private individual?
Rabbi Tarfon remained silent, and at once the face of Judah b. Nehemiah brightened with joy.
Thereupon Rabbi Akiva said to him, ‘Judah, your face has brightened with joy because you have refuted the Sage; I wonder whether you will live long’ — Said Rabbi Judah b. Ila’i, ‘This happened a fortnight before the Passover, and when I came up for the Atzereth festival I enquired after Judah b. Nehemiah and was told that he had passed away’. (Menachot 68b)
Rabbi Akiva was not upset that Yehudah ben Nechemiah won an argument with Rabbi Tarfon, but that his face brightened with joy over his refutation of the great Sage. He was insensitive to Rabbi Tarfon’s honor, and derived personal pleasure from his victory.
My father zt”l always encouraged his students to challenge him in middle of a lecture. He readily admitted when he was wrong, so I was surprised when in response to a seemingly powerful refutation of his idea, he simply dismissed the argument with a wave of his hand, and continued his lecture. Immediately after the class, he asked me to bring the student who had argued with him.
“You were right. I was wrong, but I had to protect your life!” He pointed out the story above, and continued, “Your face was shining with the wrong type of joy. I urge you to be more careful.” The student acknowledged his reaction, and my father rose and announced that, “After consideration, I realized that so and so was correct and I was wrong!”
Twenty years later, the student told me that the experience changed his life, and his Torah study soared to new levels after he accepted on himself to review this story in his mind before arguing a point in Torah!
Personal Note: He is known for his humility.