Avot 2:19 - Do We Really Know

Rabbi Elazar said: Be diligent in the study of Torah, and know how to respond to a heretic. (m.Avot 2:19)

Do you really believe in your faith? Do you really believe in Messianic Judaism? Because if we truly believe in Messianic Judaism, then we would do just exactly as this mishnah directs us: we would study the Scriptures diligently to know it like we know the back of our hands. There are so many competing voices who claim to have the corner on truth. Messianic Judaism is just one voice in a sea of many. What makes it unique? What makes it authentic? Why does it give us hope?

In our mishnah, Rabbi Elazar challenges us not to merely read Torah, but to study it diligently. There is a big difference between reading a text and studying it. The former is passive, while the latter is active and engaged with the text. The former can be accomplished in a few extra moments, while the latter can only be accomplished with rigorous effort and diligence. We have already learned from Hillel, “Say not: ‘When I have time I will study,’ because you may never have the time” (Avot 2:5). If we wait for the perfect conditions to arrive before we commit ourselves to study, our wait may be indefinite.

Also, when we take the time and effort to diligently study the Torah, it will indeed allow us to know how to respond to a heretic. The Hebrew word used for “heretic” in this text is the word epikoros, a transliteration of the Greek word for Epicurean, a general term used to refer to one whose religious perspective was based on Greek philosophy rather than Torah. Rabbi Elazar is saying that we need to know the Scriptures so well that we will have a response for any heretical attack against our faith, even ones that use sophisticated philosophical arguments against it. As we see, the first part of this mishnah naturally leads to the second. Peter confirms this concept by charging us:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Messiah may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15–16)

Study of Torah should also lead to a more fruitful life. As we learned in mishnah 6, “an ignorant man cannot be pious.” If this is true, then the opposite should also be equally true: one who is well-studied in Torah should be pious. Why? Because the study of Torah should lead to a response. One of the foundational texts we recite in our liturgy each day is from tractate Shabbat. It says:

These are the things whose fruit a person partakes of in this world, but the full measure is stored up for him in the world to come. They are: honor of father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, attending to the dead, devotion in prayer, bringing peace between a man and his neighbor, and between a man and his wife. The study of Torah, however, is equal to them all. (b.Shabbat 127a)

The last part of this passage from the Talmud says that the study of Torah is equal to all of these various mitzvot. How? Because it is only through the study of Torah that we know we are obligated to perform these commandments. Without diligence in our Torah study we would be oblivious to many, if not most, of the Torah’s instructions. Study of Torah, however, brings with it great reward. After all, the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.