“There are four types of students: Quick to grasp and quick to forget — his advantage is cancelled by his disadvantage; slow to grasp and slow to forget — his disadvantage is cancelled by his advantage; quick to grasp and slow to forget — this is a good portion; slow to grasp and quick to forget — this is a bad portion.”

The tractate Avos is part of Mishnah, a compilation of the teachings of our Sages in the Tannaic period, arranged and edited by Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi. Not everything said by the Sages was included in Mishnah:1 Discussions and dialectics are omitted, and even the halachic opinions and rulings are presented in terse style. Also, only those teachings which offered new insights were incorporated into Mishnah.

It follows that the particular mishnah quoted above is not merely informing us that there are four types of students. Any teacher knows that students differ in their capacities to absorb and retain knowledge. Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi would not have chosen to include such an obvious matter in Mishnah. It must be introducing some element previously unknown.

Even then, there must be a good reason for the mishnah to tell it to us. A mishnah’s objective is not the mere impartation of knowledge unconnected with practical results. If there were no directives for teachers and students to be taken from this mishnah, we could legitimately ask the question voiced often by the Talmud, “What difference does it make?”

The type of lesson derived is also important. The teachings contained in Pirkei Avos are “Mili d’Chassidusa,”2 words of piety. They are not statements of law, but rather their purpose is to teach a Jew how to live piously, over and above the minimum halachic requirements. Thus the lesson derived from this mishnah must concern not legal obligations but conduct beyond the strict letter of the law.

Because the terminology employed by a mishnah is precise, there must be good reason for any discrepancy in the terminology used. The beginning of this particular mishnah states, “There are four types of students,” and yet when describing the two latter types of students, it says “this is a good portion” and “this is a bad portion,” instead of remaining consistent and saying “this is a good type” and “this is a bad type.”

The obligation to teach students derives from the verse, “You shall teach them to your children,”3 which, our Sages have said,4 refers to all students. In the words of the Alter Rebbe:5 “It is a positive Scriptural mitzvah devolving on every sage to teach all the students although they are not his offspring, as it is said, ‘You shall teach them to your children,’ etc., and the Sages received [the tradition that] ‘your children’ — these are your, students.”

This obligation to teach students involves only instructing them in Torah; one is not obligated to be concerned with the students’ mental capacities, to try to improve them where necessary.

Pirkei Avos, which is “words of piety,” says that pious conduct — extending oneself further than the minimum obligation — demands that a teacher not remain satisfied with only instructing his students in Torah but must also pay attention to their capacity to absorb and retain the knowledge he feeds them.

This mishnah also addresses the student: The knowledge of what type of student he is must affect his approach to his studies.

Let us now examine each of the four types of students, and what should be the attitude of the teacher and student.

“Quick to grasp and quick to forget — his advantage is cancelled by his disadvantage.”

When confronted with a student who is quick to understand what he is taught, a teacher may think that by merely providing the student with knowledge he has totally fulfilled his teaching duties. The student may believe that since he absorbs information quickly and accurately, all is well with his studies.

This mishnah teaches that “pious” conduct demands that the teacher also interest himself in what happens afterwards: Does the student remember what he has learned, or does he forget it quickly? If the latter, both teacher and student must realize that “his advantage is cancelled by his disadvantage.” The teacher must therefore encourage the student to repeat his lessons to make sure he doesn’t forget them, and the student must follow his teacher’s urgings.

“Slow to grasp and slow to forget — his disadvantage is cancelled by his advantage.”

When a teacher sees that a student finds it difficult to absorb knowledge, he may think that it is a waste of time to teach him, time and energy that could be better used in teaching students who are “quick to grasp.” The student, on the other hand, may easily become despondent over his slowness in learning.

Our mishnah instructs both that “his disadvantage is cancelled by his advantage.” The teacher is told to look past the student’s present difficulties and see his capacity for remembering what he does understand — and therefore the teacher should repeat and explain the lesson time and again until the student finally grasps it. Similarly, the student is told that he need not be despondent, for eventually, “his disadvantage is cancelled by his advantage.”

“Quick to grasp and slow to forget — this is a good portion.”

Having such a superb student may easily cause a teacher to become overly proud. The student, too, may be conceited because of his mental abilities. Our mishnah tells both that there is no cause for conceit, for “this is a good portion” — his qualities are not a result of the teacher’s work or the student’s own efforts, but is a “portion” granted from Above.

“Slow to grasp and quick to forget — this is a bad portion.”

Confronted with a student who can neither grasp information quickly nor remember what he has learned, a teacher may well abandon all hope for progress and desist from teaching him. The student, realizing that he has poor mental faculties, may become deeply despondent.

But, says this mishnah, it is not the student’s fault; he has been given a “bad portion” from Above. The teacher must therefore not give up but help him understand his studies, improve his mind. The student, also, should not despair of his mental powers, for since it is a “bad portion” — i.e., given from G‑d — it must have a purpose: to arouse the student to change and improve his abilities through toil and effort.

Shabbos Parshas Bamidbar, 5744