pirkei avot 2:19 - How to answer a non-believer

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Isaac ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline

Rabbi Elazar says, "Be eager to learn Torah; know how to answer the heretic; know before Whom you toil i.e. know who your Employer is: the One who will pay you for your labors." 
In order to blunt the teeth of heretical statements, for instance, "I don't believe in the Oral Law, just the Written one" (for more elucidation click on the link for a lecture by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen), or "I don't believe in allowing the land of Israel to lie fallow once every seven years," one must familiarize himself with Torah. After all, Rabbi Elazar's directive, "Know how to answer the heretic" obligates us to. That is to say, if there is any chance that the man disregarding halacha (Torah laws) or Torah ideals is open to being disproved, one may show him where his thinking is faulty. However, if his ears are blocked up, nothing can be done and one may simply leave it be.

Studies show that the tutor gets more benefit than the one being tutored. In order to teach others (or, in this case, correct them) one must understand the subject he is imparting on a deeper level than if he was learning alone. Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, the Mirrer mashgiach (the moral guide at a Torah center for scholars called Mir) stated, "If you are having a difficult time teaching someone, if the explanations are heavy in your mouth, you have not learned the material thoroughly enough." 

Why does the Torah speak with such urgency regarding one's obligation to shut down heretical thinking? Rabbenu Yonah (a commentary from the 11th century) says, "If a person doesn't know how to refute heretical statements the world will learn from them and drink of their evil waters..." One must be wary of others, until he knows them to be straight in their thinking as well as their actions. Should one spend too much time in the company of bad influences and expose himself to all kinds of diabolical thinking, he may discover himself becoming drawn into their way of thinking, though he often reasoned otherwise. Anyone, even great personalities, are susceptible. Consider Rabbi Yochanan who, after serving as high priest for eighty years, became a Sadducee.  

The antidote to falling into any traps is, of course, learning Torah. Not only that, "Know before Whom you toil."  One who is mindful of why he learns while he is learning, one who keeps his eye on a specific goal instead of learning aimlessly, may come to experience the process of gaining knowledge with more passion.

When all's said and done, humanity's purpose in this world is to get close to G-d. One can spend an entire life zapping down other people for thinking differently; after all, almost no one nowadays can be called a full blooded heretic; people simply do not know enough to be taken seriously. However, it is our rite and obligation to learn as much we are able, and we must believe and appreciate that there is an Infinite Force who will pay us according to our labors.          

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