The Best of Both Worlds
“Give him another 400 years of life and also grant him and his entire generation a place in the World to Come.”
This is what Hashem told the angels to announce to Rabbi Preida to reward this Torah scholar for his great love for the Torah and for others, and for his great patience and humility. What did Rabbi Preida do to merit this reward?
He had a student whom he needed to teach a new part of the Torah 400 times until the student understood it. One day Rabbi Preida told the student that he was called to do a mitzvah and might need to leave earlier than usual. Nevertheless, Rabbi Preida succeeded in teaching the day’s portion 400 times, but the student did not understand it that day!
When Rabbi Preida asked his student what was different about that day, he received the following reply: “Ever since you told me you might be leaving early, the thought was in my mind that you might leave at any moment, which distracted me and I couldn’t concentrate on today’s Torah studies.”
Rabbi Preida asked the student to try harder to concentrate and that he would teach him the same Torah section another 400 times.
Then a bat kol (“voice from Heaven”) offered Rabbi Preida his choice of reward. “What do you prefer as a reward? An additional 400 years of life or a guarantee of a place in the World to Come for you and your entire generation?”
Rabbi Preida replied that he would prefer that he and his generation merit the World to Come, thereby showing his willingness to forgo a personal reward of extreme longevity in this world.
Hashem commanded His angels, saying, “Give him another 400 years of life and also grant a place in the World to Come for him and his entire generation.”
A beautiful and inspiring story indeed! But what is its message? Commentaries ask what Rabbi Preida did, exactly, that made him worthy of receiving such extraordinary rewards from Above.
At the end, of course, he showed great humility, in placing the reward for others before his own personal gain, choosing a place in the World to Come over an additional 400 years for himself in this world. His humility resulted in his being granted both this-worldly and next-worldly rewards. But what did he do in the first place to be deserving of any special reward from Hashem?
I once saw an answer offered by a certain educator, explaining that it was Rabbi Preida’s display of “superhuman” patience — his “beyond the call of duty” — that was so praiseworthy and earned a very special reward.
This is certainly an important principle that should guide any teacher. Recognizing that not all students are alike and that some comprehend and “grow” in their Torah knowledge at a rate that is faster than others. A “kosher” educator will know how to teach and relate to each and every student, according to the student’s need.
However, with sincere respect for this commentary’s claim that it was Rabbi Preida’s patience in teaching and re-teaching his student what seems to be the same material — 400 times normally, and even 800 times on this occasion — it seems that this interpretation of our sugya is not quite correct.
If great patience was his virtue, then why wasn’t he granted the reward for his daily show of extraordinary patience? Day after day, Rabbi Preida taught this student the “Torah portion of the day,” repeating it 400 times daily until the student finally “got it.” (Please note that what seems to be a large number of attempts at explaining the subject to the student does not mean that the student was weak or slow in his ability to learn. The material may have been particularly complex and/or Rabbi Preida may not have been content with anything less than his student understanding it with the depth of understanding that would not only help him internalize and remember it, but also enable him to teach it to other students as well.)
Another challenge to this explanation is that teaching Torah is a mitzvah that has no limit. According to many authorities, every single word of Torah study is a fulfillment of an additional mitzvah of Talmud Torah. Therefore, why is the number of times that Rabbi Preida taught his student particularly significant? If he needed to teach the student again and again, that is precisely the mitzvah of teaching Torah. It is not a special mitzvah. In fact, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is to be “involved in Torah study,” as we say in the morning blessings. The reward received for Torah study is for “toiling” in the study of Hashem’s Torah, as we say at the conclusion of studying a Tractate of the Talmud: “We toil (in Torah study) and receive reward (for our toil in pursuit of Torah study).”
Rather, Rabbi Preida’s special trait as a true Torah scholar who transmitted the Torah from one generation to the next was that he looked carefully, with love, into the heart of his students to understand their potential for probing the depths of the Torah. And accordingly, he taught his students according to each student’s needs. When he saw that his student, who normally understood after 400 times, one time did not succeed in understanding, Rabbi Preida did not judge him or be inclined to suggest that the student learn from a different Rabbi (what is sometimes nowadays called “promoting a student horizontally”).
Rabbi Preida sincerely wanted to know why this day was different and more challenging for the student. When his student told him that he had difficulty concentrating, thinking that the Rabbi might be called away at any moment for a different mitzvah, Rabbi Preida then understood the problem and knew the solution. Since he was a teacher of Torah to the heart and the soul of his student, he knew that if he clearly instructed his student to concentrate, the Rabbi would continue to teach him and the student would successfully learn as he did on every other day. And so it was.
- Eruvin 54b