Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” states in chapter 6:6: “The Torah is acquired in 48 ways.” This week: Way #25, “Knowing one’s place”
Twenty-six ways of acquiring the Torah precede “knowing one’s place” (which is #25, but recall that some of the earlier ways have alternatives; counting these, we have so far addressed 26 ways). If I have put all 26 ways into practice, must I still “know my place?” Shouldn’t I have climbed higher than that by now?
Perhaps “knowing one’s place” appears midway through the list of the 48 ways for a reason. The beginner in acquiring the Torah knows his place instinctively. A student in the middle of the journey may be tempted by arrogance. To know one’s place keeps one humble.
It keeps one open to new fields of Torah and new mentors. If I know my place, by definition I know others’ place. This is indispensable to knowing when I might have outgrown a teacher or study partner, when I might need to move beyond my “comfort zone.”
It might seem that to know my place in the hierarchy of Torah scholarship is discouraging. Actually, the opposite. To know my place is to know that I can now explore deeper levels of Torah, perhaps with new colleagues and teachers. To know one’s place aids in the advancement of one’s acquisition of Torah.
The 25th way to acquire the Torah: Knowing One’s Place.
Way #1, Study; Way #2, Listen; Way #3, Articulate Speech; Way #4, Understanding of the Heart; Way #5, An Intelligent Heart; Way #6, Awe; Way #7, Fear; Way #8, Humility; Way #9a, Joy; Way #9b, Purity; Way #10, Serving the Sages; Way #11, Interaction with colleagues; Way #12, Exchanges with students; Way #13, Deliberation; Way #14, Scripture; Way #15a, Mishnah; Way #15b, Limited Business Activity; Way #16a, Limited Marital Relations; Way #16b, Portion Control; Way #17, Limited Pleasure; Way #18, All nighters; Way #19, Limited Conversation; Way #20, Limited Entertainment; Way #21, Slowness to anger; Way #22, A good heart; Way #23, Faith in the sages; Way #24, Acceptance of suffering