Acquiring Torah 9: Asking From The Tree
Rabbi Akiva asked Rabbi Nechunia the great: In virtue of what have you reached such a good old age? His attendants came and beat him (for asking what they considered a disrespectful question), so he went and sat on the top of a date tree, and said to him: “Rabbi, seeing that it says, ‘a lamb,’ why does it also say, ‘one’?” Thereupon R. Nechunia said, “He is a rabbinical student, leave him alone.” He then answered his question, saying, ‘One’ means ‘unique in its flock.’
Then he said to him: Never in my life have I accepted presents, nor have I insisted on retribution when wronged, and I have been generous with my money. ‘I have not accepted presents’, as illustrated by R. Eleazar, who, when presents were sent to him from the Prince would not accept them and when he was invited there would not go. He said to them: Do you not want me to live, since it says, “He that hates gifts shall live?” (Megillah 28a)
It was Rabbi Akiva’s status as a “rabbinical student” that permitted him to ask what would otherwise be considered a disrespectful question. Once a person is on the path of Acquiring Torah, he sees all details of life as part of Torah Study. Once the question was a Torah question, Rabbi Nechuniah responded as a lesson in life. Part of the process of Acquiring Torah is to learn that everything is an opportunity to learn Torah.
When my father zt”l became Rosh Yeshiva, after the passing of my grandfather zt”l, I noticed that when served at the Shabbat table, he no longer waited for everyone else to be served. He only waited for ybcl”c my mother. I asked him why he did not wait, and he responded, “How are you asking me?” “I am asking from on top of the date-palm (as in the story above),” I said.
“Then, your question is appropriate: A Rosh Yeshiva should not wait; it is not respect for the position. However, it is even more important for a Rosh Yeshiva to wait for his wife.”