I. Dueling Mountains
Midrashic tradition teaches that when God was choosing on which mountain to give the Torah, Carmel and Tabor came running, asking that they merit this honor. God chose the humble Sinai rather than the uprooted Carmel and Tabor, but the rejected two still merited learning Torah for a brief period (see Megillah 29a; Bereishis Rabbah 99:1). Whether you take this as a parable, a story of debate in the heavenly court or a literal history (cf. Maharsha on Megillah; Yefeh Toar on Bereishis Rabbah; Me’Am Lo’ez on Exodus 19:17 — I prefer the first), you can extract from it a lesson that transfers to other, practical areas.
II. Dueling Rabbis
The Gemara (Horayos 14a) describes a debate whether the great yeshiva in Pumbedisa should choose Rabbah or Rav Yosef as its rosh yeshiva. Rav Yosef had a phenomenal memory and knew all Tannaitic literature by heart. He was a “Sinai”. Rabbah did not have a similarly encyclopedic knowledge but was a brilliant analyst, an “oker harim” (uprooter of mountains). Who is a more appropriate choice for rosh yeshiva? Rav Yosef, the Sinai, was selected but he declined and Rabbah took the position. Twenty two years later, after Rabbah’s death, Rav Yosef assumed the position.
The Maharsha (ad loc.) connects this debate with the former midrash about the mountains. Carmel and Tabor only learned Torah for a brief period but were uprooters of mountains, able to deduce many laws through their brilliance. Yet Sinai, which knew the entire Torah, prevailed. And so Rav Yosef, the master of all masekhtos, prevailed as well.
R. Shlomo Kluger, in a marginal note to Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim, Eishel Avraham 136; cf. Nimukei Chaim 136:1), connects this to a debate in Avos (2:8) over which of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students was greater. The first opinion is that R. Elazar ben Hyrkanus, who never forgot anything, was the greatest. Abba Shaul said that R. Elazar ben Arakh, who was an overflowing stream of brilliance, was the greatest. The Gemara in Horayos seems to conclude that R. Elazar ben Hyrkanus, a Sinai like Rav Yosef, would have been considered greater.
III. Dueling Scholars
This has practical implications not only in choosing who should serve as the senior instructor but also in the synagogue. In discussing priorities in calling people to the Torah, the Levush (Orach Chaim 282:7, quoted in Ba’er Heitev 136:1) rules that a scholar with a broad ability to decide on practical matters precedes a sharp scholar. The Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim, Eishel Avraham 136) explains that this is based on the rule that a Sinai takes precedence over an oker harim.
R. Shlomo Kluger suggests that the conclusion of this talmudic debate was only relevant to the time when then Oral Torah was not written down. In those days, the ability to memorize prior teachings was crucial and a Sinai was invaluable. In later years, when the Mishnah, Gemara and other books were readily available for consultation, a Sinai was less important than an oker harim.
Today, when we have computerized much of the extant Torah and can easily search and access it, R. Kluger’s argument seems even stronger. When Google and Bar Ilan searches can uncover all relevant primary texts, when Tzitz Eliezer and Yabi’a Omer provide references to all prior studies, when encyclopedias like Otzar Yisrael and Encyclopedia Talmudis summarize centuries of information, isn’t the need for penetrating analysis greater than for perfect recall?
However, we need to sound a note of caution. While the Maharsha’s above comparison to the mountains who learned briefly is equivocal, Rashi is clear that the oker harim has to have a little Sinai in him. Rashi (Horayos 14a sv. u-mar) describes an oker harim as someone who “שאין משנה וברייתא סדורין לו כל כך.” He is familiar with all the primary texts but does not have them at his fingertips. We are not speaking of a novice but an expert who merely lacks the incredible recall of a Sinai. Beginners, regardless of their analytical prowess, need not apply. To be even an oker harim, one must be a little bit of a Sinai.