Avtalion used to say: Sages be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile, and be carried off to a place of evil waters, and the disciples who follow you drink and die, and thus the name of heaven becomes profaned.
One word from a teacher can have an enormous influence on a student; ideally, that influence should be positive, rather than negative. However, teachers can fall into potential traps if they lack self-awareness or care in how they teach. Research indicates that effective teachers have a personality style that balances extraversion and charisma, with a good dose of conscientiousness (Kim, Jörg, & Klassen, 2019). Being overly dynamic, without a sense of cautiousness and sensitivity to the students’ personalities and opinions can lead to scenarios where, at best, teachers are ineffective, but at worst, can lead students down a darker path.
In this Mishna, Avtalion cautions sages to “be careful with your words,” otherwise there may be dire consequences. While his cautionary tale is specific (exile -> evil waters -> disciples dying -> God’s name profaned), many commentaries read this dramatic depiction as a metaphorical warning of other possible dangers lurking if sages are not careful with their words.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau understands it as a general message against carelessness. The profession has high stakes. Students take what the sage says seriously. If he is not careful about how he says things, the students can misunderstand. Meiri adds that the sage shouldn’t rely on the students to take the initiative to ask for clarification if something isn’t clear. They won’t always know what needs clarification, and worse, some students may even be looking to misinterpret what the sage is saying. Rabbi Yitzchak from Toledo expands the message, cautioning everyone to be careful with their speech. According to him the Mishna mentions the sage only because the stakes tend to be higher with people of influence. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski adds that the sage may have an element of humility that leads him to downplay the importance of what he says, and that the Mishna warns not to let this humility lead to unintended negative consequences.
While carelessness is indeed a problematic trait in a teacher, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm sees the Mishna as cautioning against an even more problematic trait for a teacher: zealotry and intolerance. Noting that galut, exile, mentioned in our Mishna is a punishment for manslaughter, Rabbi Lamm writes;
the negligent teacher who uses loaded words indiscriminately will thereby arouse the evil waters – the surging waves of hatred – to churn into violence. And younger, impressionable students, bright but still immature young people controlled as much by their glands as their minds, will imbibe these words and cause death and destruction to themselves and others… Beware of carelessly stigmatizing another person. Beware of intolerance, and beware of tolerance for the intolerant. There is a fine line that separates passion from violence and zeal from zealotry. Beware of the tendency to deny that any other position can have merit, that your one concern takes precedence over every other consideration, that the adversary is invariably demonic, that every mean is legitimate to achieve your end.
For Rabbi Lamm, the danger is not carelessness but rather, unbridled charisma. It is beneficial for teachers to be extraverted and charismatic, but that needs to be balanced with a sense of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to other opinions. Domineering, authoritarian, and dictatorial style, can end up damaging students and leading them down a path of destruction for themselves and others. In the words of Rabbi Berel Wein, “students who ‘drink the water’ of teachers who are ill-equipped by reason of temperament, lack of knowledge, poor character, lack of professionalism, or extremist views are ill served and are condemned, albeit unintentionally, to various types of spiritual death.”