Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Beware Of The Fire Of The Sages

From Passover (starting tonight) to Rosh HaShana (the Jewish New Year), Jews traditionally read a chapter of the Pirkei Avot ("The Ethics of the Fathers"), every Sabbath. The Pirkei Avot mostly consists of one tractate of the Talmud. It's the part of the Talmud that even relatively unlearned Jews like myself seem likely to have read—a book full of practical and moral teachings.

I was dipping into it recently and read a bit that reminded me of Korzybski. Korzybski, a man full of practical and moral teachings, seems more and more to fit the classical curmudgeon mold, the more I learn about him. He had some very hard edges at times with people whom he clearly wanted to teach and help. It put off some of them, I'm nigh sure. Perhaps that hardness comes closer to what one should expect from a teacher like him and not a gentle Mr. or Dr. Feel-Good that some would prefer. The road to becoming wiser, even with help, may inevitably involve bumps and bruises. And our teachers along the way may not seem as nice as we would like—though no excuses for unnecessary cruelty or the foibles of the great. As Rabbi Eliezer said in the Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2),
... You should warm yourself opposite the fire of the Sages, but be cautious that you not be burned by their glowing coals. For their bite is the bite of a fox. Their sting is the sting of a scorpion. Their hiss is the hiss of a serpent. And all their words are coals of fire.

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