THE IMPORTANCE OF ROLE-MODELS
Does watching violence on television make children more aggressive? How about playing violent video games? In 1961, Albert Bandura started studying how children are affected by witnessing adults being aggressive. He split children ages 3-6 into different groups. Some witnessed an adult attacking an inflatable clown (a “Bobo doll”) by hitting, punching, and banging it with a mallet, all while spewing verbal assaults. Others observed adults playing calmly with other toys. The children were then placed in the same room as the Bobo doll and other toys and were given free time to play. As hypothesized, those exposed to violence were more likely to act violently towards the Bobo doll. This experiment was instrumental in Bandura’s development of Social Learning Theory, which at its core contends that we tend to learn vicariously, through witnessing other people. Our behaviors are not just inborn, but are influenced by our environment, specifically by observing others. The message for teachers and parents is clear. Children learn by observing our behavior. If we want them to learn proper behavior, we need to model it, and limit the amount of aggressive behavior they observe.
Yet, the effects of modeling are not just pertinent to children. Social environments and the behavior of others also affect adults. It is also not just the responsibility of the teacher, parent, or mentor to model proper behavior, but each individual’s responsibility to seek out opportunities to learn from exemplars.
In this Mishna, Yose ben Yoezer teaches this very concept:
Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received from them. Yose ben Yoezer used to say: let your house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.
The first message, “let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages,” either encourages us to host the Sages at our own house (Rambam), or teaches that we should spend so much time with the Sages, that we related to their house of study as our own place of residence (Sforno). According to both readings, Yose ben Yoezer encourages us to proactively set up opportunities where we can observe the Sages. Doing so affords us the opportunity to both learn the content of their Torah ideas, as well as learn more refined character from observing their behavior (Meiri). In fact, we learn more from observing their actions than we do from hearing their words of Torah (Tiferet Yisrael).
The second and third clauses of the Mishna both reinforce and accentuate the previous point and reveal additional lessons on how to be a good mentee, seeking to learn the most from our role models. To “sit in the very dust of their feet” teaches us to seek out opportunities to serve the Sages (Rashi). Besides for the ethical and prosocial benefits of helping, it also provides new scenarios to observe, interact, and learn. Additionally, sitting in the dust of their feet intimates the importance of learning despite potential difficulty. Even when the process gets us dusty and dirty, we mush persist through difficulty to be able to observe and learn from teachers. Finally, “drink in their words with thirst” encourages the zeal, passion, and willingness we should exhibit in trying to learn from them. We should treat learning as a basic drive—as basic as our need for water—and consistently pursue learning from role-models.