One of the Mishnayot in today’s daf (Eruvin 10:6, 99b) informs us that someone who is standing in a reshut harabim (public domaim) may use a cup or other vessel to catch water that is falling from a gutter, and it also teaches us that it is permissible to drink water directly from a drainpipe.
For those of us who are blessed with running water in our homes such behaviour may be hard to connect with – although I should add that if it really is hard for us to connect with this fact, we should take a moment to search the internet where we will learn that there are millions of people around the world without access to fresh water whom we should be actively assisting (and if – for whatever crazy reason – we think this is not something we should involve ourselves in, we should recall how our patriarchs and matriarchs involved themselves in digging wells and providing water for others – and so must we do as well!).
However, beyond mentioning our need to physically provide water to the thirsty, a further reason why this imagery resonates deeply with me is because, over the past week in response to the death of Rabbi Sacks zt’l, I have been pondering the teacher-student relationship while reflecting on one of my favourite rabbinic aphorisms found in Pirkei Avot (1:4) where Yossi Ben Yoezer states: ‘Let your house be a meeting place for Sages; sit in the dust at their feet, and drink their words with thirst’.
In terms of the first part of this Mishna, ‘let your house be a meeting place for Sages’ should be understood both physically and conceptually. Physically – we should invite our teachers into our homes, and conceptually, the books we read should represent the voices of our many teachers while our bookshelves – as well as the Torah that we learn and teach – should be a ‘meeting place’ of those Sages.
The second part, ‘sit in the dust at their feet’, serves as a reminder to humble ourselves in the presence of our teachers, while knowing that if we sit by them, we will soon find – as the first Mishna in Avot (1:1) states – that they will ‘raise us up’ in so many ways.
But most significant is the third part which states how we should ‘drink the words of our teachers with thirst’, and having done so with a number of the great teachers I have been privileged to have – including Rabbi Sacks zt’l – I can say that the words of our Mishna are not hard to connect with because I have endeavoured, to the best of my ability, to drink their words like someone trying to catch water from a gutter, or like someone drinking water directly from a drainpipe. Each insight of theirs has been a source of sustenance and energy, and each has given me life.
Prior to making Aliyah I wanted to give my wonderful Rabbi and teacher, Dayan Gershon Lopian zt’l, a gift. Since his study (and his house!) was overflowing with sefarim, I felt that a gift of further sefarim was unnecessary, and since that he lived very humbly, I realized that few material items would be meaningful to him.
Dayan Lopian zt’l had many great teachers himself. He studied from his grandfather Rav Elya Lopian zt’l, he was a close talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l with whom he spent five months receiving shimush from whom he received semicha, and he revered Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l, and during the countless shiurim that I attended of the Dayan, he would often quote his teachers with great passion and enthusiasm.
Given this, and given the British appreciation for a good cup of tea or coffee, I arranged to have two mugs printed for him as a parting gift. On one mug was a picture of Rav Moshe Feinstein, on the other was a picture of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and on both were the words of the Mishna – ‘drink the words of our teachers with thirst’, and I hoped that each time the Dayan would have a cup of tea or coffee, he would reflect on how he had communicated to his students his love for his teachers as well as their Torah ideas.
Sadly, most of my great teachers are no longer alive. Still, on a daily basis I endeavour to drink their words with thirst. And perhaps – to represent this – the time has come to print a set of mugs like this for myself.