Rabbi Nehorai would say, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah study; do not say that it will come to you, that your colleagues will preserve it for you. Do not rely only on your own understanding.” (Avot 4:14)
This mishna is cited on our daf in relation to an unfortunate event involving Rabbi Elazar ben Aroch. Our gemara tells of a time when he travelled to a part of Eretz Yisrael renowned for its rich wines and relaxing mineral spas. Of course, Hashem created an amazing world filled with unfathomable beauty and pleasure. He created it all for us to enjoy in order to “open our hearts and minds” to grow close to Him and His Torah. However, excess luxury can make a negative impact on a person’s relationship with Hashem. Rabbi Elazar ben Aroch apparently indulged in worldly pleasures slightly more than was fit for a great Torah scholar of his stature, and, as a result, forgot his Torah knowledge. Fortunately, his Rabbi colleagues prayed for his spiritual wellbeing, and Hashem returned his vast Torah knowledge to him.
It is in this context that the mishna in Pirkei Avot is taught in our gemara, with special emphasis on the teaching that, “Your colleagues will preserve it (i.e. the Torah) for you.”
Many other interpretations and lessons have been learned from this mishna by the great Torah commentaries. One idea in particular is of great significance for any student of Torah study: The importance of being involved in Torah study together with a chevruta (study partner), a Yeshiva with many students, and with a Rabbi to guide each person’s Torah study. In fact, a person who studies Torah without others is in danger of incorrect and improper study, which can lead to thoughts, speech, and actions which are not in accordance with the true way of the Torah. (Elsewhere, in Talmud Tips for Masechet Maccot 10a, I have elaborated on this topic and related a powerful story involving Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld that I have added to my “Recommended Reading List.”)
In this context, Rabbi Nehorai’s statement in Pirkei Avot reflects an explanation taught by Rav Ovadia from Bartenura, “the Rav.” The Rav writes that Rabbi Nehorai is warning every Torah student not to rely on his own intelligence for a true understanding of Torah, no matter how smart he is. Only the give-and-take of studying the Torah with others will lead one to be truly successful in achieving Torah wisdom.
- Shabbat 147b