Recently, while learning with my chavrusa (t/y Torah Mates), we looked up the famous story of the Talmudic sages Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish (בבא מציעא פ"ד ע"א). The story is one of the most tragic and difficult stories found in the Talmud, and needs careful study to properly understand. In the course of reviewing the story, I was struck by a new insight.
At one point, the story tells how, after the death of his close disciple, friend, and brother-in-law, Reish Lakish, Rav Yochanan suffered terribly. In an attempt to comfort Rav Yochanan, the sage, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedas, came to sit as a disciple before Rav Yochanan as a replacement for Reish Lakish. For every statement of Rav Yochanan, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedas would bring support from earlier sources. Rav Yochanan then said to him, "Are you like ben Lakish? On every thing I said, he would challenge me with twenty-four difficulties, and I would answer with twenty-four answers, and in this manner the teaching would be expanded. And you bring me proof? Do I not know that I am correct?"
What struck me for the first time in my recent review of this story was Rav Yochanan's statement that for Reish Lakish's twenty-four questions, he had to give twenty-four answers. Usually, when, in studying a Talmudic sugya (topic), we find ourselves with several difficulties, the likelihood is that most, if not all, of the difficulties are based upon one or two basic errors that we made in our study. While they may go unnoticed initially, as the sugya progresses, the difficulties caused by these errors begin to snowball, and at the end we find ourselves with a whole series of problems. A more experienced scholar will often be able resolve most of our difficulties by simply pointing out the basic error we made early on in the sugya.
Moreover, while he may not be able to resolve the difficulty on his own, a highly competent student will usually be able to work his questions back to their underlying premises and recognize where the core difficulty lies. Such a student will ask fewer questions, but his questions will be much more focused and productive.
If R' Yochanan had only said that Reish Lakish would ask twenty-four questions, this could have meant nothing more than that Reish Lakish had difficulty following R' Yochanan's teachings and was therefore always left with numerous questions. However, when R' Yochanan says that each of the twenty-four questions required a separate answer, this indicates that every single question was fundamentally distinct. Reish Lakish had thoroughly analyzed the teaching, and had located twenty-four separate problem areas, each of which had to be dealt with on its own.
The more I think about this, the more it amazes me.