Friday, September 9, 2011

A Cure for Arrogance

Related by Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dworkin a"h who heard it from Reb Shmuel Grunim a"h
by Rabbi Rafael Nachman Kahn, translated by Basha Majerczyk

Alter Rebbe

The gaon Reb Avraham of Kalisk was an iluy, a childhood prodigy whose genius was already evident at an early age.  When the boy was eleven or twelve, his father complained to the Alter Rebbe - Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi [Hebrew: שניאור זלמן מליאדי‎], the first Rebbe of Chabad - that although his son was indeed brilliant, it pained him to see that his son's intellectual gifts were making him arrogant.  "Bring him to me" the Alter Rebbe replied, "and I will speak to him."

The next time the father came to the Alter Rebbe he brought his son along. "Do you know how to learn?" the Alter Rebbe asked him.  "Yes" the boy replied.  At that, the Alter Rebbe stood up and brought him a thick volume, a book of Responsa written by the Rosh [Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel].  Opening it to a certain passage, he asked the boy if he understood what it meant.  "Yes", the iluy answered.

The Alter Rebbe then brought up a strong contradictory point, and asked the boy to resolve the conflict.  When the boy was unable to do so, the Alter Rebbe provided an answer.

"Is my answer a good one?" he prompted the child.

"Yes" the young Reb Avraham replied, "it is excellent."

The Alter Rebbe then proceeded to destroy his own hypothesis, and showed him why it wasn't sound.  This happened several times, the Alter Rebbe asking the boy for his approval, and after obtaining it, explaining why his line of thought was flawed.

At the end of the interview the Alter Rebbe closed the book.  "You don't know how to learn." the Alter Rebbe pronounced. "Whatever they tell you, you believe."  This remark nipped Reb Avraham's arrogance in the bud.

Years later, Reb Avraham had another yechidus with the Alter Rebbe. This time the Rebbe showed him the Responsa of the Maharam of Rotenburg, who, when asked a certain question, had cited a particular passage in the Gemara as proof.  This proof, however, was extremely tenuous. The Alter Rebbe asked Reb Avraham if he could think of any other Talmudic passages to bolster the Maharam's argument, and he cited five.  The Rebbe then mentioned six other passages, for a sum total of eleven, each of which seemed stronger and more compelling than the one actually quoted by the Maharam.

"Why do you think," the Alter Rebbe questioned, "the Maharam chose that passage, when there are eleven better ones he could have quoted?"  The Alter Rebbe then knocked down each of the eleven, leaving only the original proof cited by the Maharam, which was incontrovertible.

"Don't think" the Alter Rebbe concluded, "that when the Maharam sat down to write his Responsa he considered and then rejected each one of the other eleven passages, and it was only when he reached the twelfth that he was satisfied.  Not at all !  The twelfth passage was the one he thought of first! For that is the advantage of our Rishonim, in whom the light of truth shone openly."