Many people will remember this story from grade school. It's great in grade school. Unfortunately, many never really bothered to understand this Gemara in a more serious way when they matured, so they either laughed the Gemara off, or continue to believe it literally. Neither of those options is to my liking. So here goes my attempt to find some meaning in it:
"...Yaakov the son of R' Aha bar Yaakov - his father sent him to Abaye. When he (Yaakov) returned, he (R' Aha) saw that his lessons weren't sharp. He said to him, "I'm preferable to you; you return so I can go". (The context is a discussion of preferences if only one person can study Torah).
Abaye heard that he was coming.
There was a destructive force ('demon') in Abaye's Rabbinical academy, such that when the entered in pairs, even during the day, they would be damaged.
He (Abaye) said to them (his students/community), "Let no person offer him (R' Aha) lodgings. Perhaps a miracle will occur." He (R' Aha) entered and slept in the academy. It (the demon)appeared to him as a seven-headed serpent. Every time he prostrated himself, another head fell off.
In the morning he said to them, "Had a miracle not occured, you would have endangered me."
Seven-headed monsters haunting the Yeshiva?
As before, my assumption is that this story is a literary construct that contains a historical kernel. The historical kernel is often unidentifiable or so deeply embedded in the story that it becomes irrelevant.
Here, there are 3 elements that form a starting point for my reading:
1) The context: the Gemara had just stated that if a person can only afford to teach Torah to himself or his son, he should teach himself unless the son is of exceptional aptitude. The story was introduced as a 'prooftext', leading to the conclusion that Yaakov was a very bright child whose brilliance does not translate into academic success in this story. The broader context includes a number of mini-sugyot that have the common theme of individuation, that there must be an element of subjectivity when it comes to guidelines for educating individuals.
2) Abaye: One of the 'main characters' of the Babylonian Talmud, he's the guy who always loses to Rava. However, he outlived Rava, a fact that the Talmud ascribes to his integration of Torah and 'Gemilut Chasadim' - kindness. Furthermore, in another obtuse narrativ, the young Abaye finds God outside of the structure of the Beit Midrash, whereas Rava finds God within. These elements suggest to me that Abaye represents a broad-minded religious personality who has successfully integrated the Torah with the wealth of experience that exists outside of the 'four ells' of the Beit Midrash. It is not a stretch to imagine that his academy was modeled after the master himself, and sought to produce integrated, well-rounded students who would be as comfortable in the marketplace as they would in the Beit Midrash. And the educational model, whatever it was, wasn't working very well.
3) The most bizarre symbol of all, the seven-headed serpent: Try this - type in "seven headed" in quotes, on Google, and look at the pages and the images. This image appears in an astounding variety of cultures (this Talmudic reference being a pretty late employment for our venerable monster). While it's hard to determine precisely the meaning of this symbol, it's fair to say that it represents chaotic but creative force, uncontrolled multiplicity and uncontrollable diversity, a threat to convention and uniformity, something primordial and undisciplined.
The story begin with R' Aha sending his very bright son to an environment, Abaye's Academy, which is isolated from the community (the only place to stay was in the academy itself). Perhaps this was a last-ditch effort, or the one and only chance that R' Aha gave his son; if Abaye coudn't succeed, nobody could succeed. Why? Why weren't his lessons 'sharp'? Perhaps this student's brilliance translated into restlessness, an inability to stay anchored to only one subject for too long. Perhaps he was naturally curious, such that a more open educational experience would be the only one that could work. I can turn this reading into autobiography by suggesting that Yaakov was an ADD student, or that Abaye's multidisciplinary approach was attracting bright but restless students from all over Babylonia.
Yaakov's lessons aren't 'sharp'. he's learning. He's accomplishing. But he doesn't succeed in acquiring the 'sharpness' that comes with real acquisition of the material. He's not throwing himself into it with his full force, or giving it his full attention. Thus, R' Aha concludes that the experiment has failed, and he will go study himself.
Turns out, that Yaakov's lack of success isn't the exception, rather the rule in Abaye's yeshiva. 'Demons' are only supposed to attack at night, and only when people are alone. Here, it's attacking the chavrutot during the day. Something, some 'demon', is killing morning seder. The kids aren't learning.
Perhaps Abaye understands what needs to be done, but is aware that he's unable to solve the problem himself. Perhaps he's at a loss just as much as everyone else. I prefer the former read, as will become clear. He formulates a strategy for how to use R' Aha to destroy the 'demon'.
He instructs his communiy not to offer hospitality. How ironic! Abaye! Mr. (or Rabbi) Integration himself! Torah and Gemilut Chasadim's champion, instructing his community not to offer hospitality to an accomplished Rabbi! But that's just it - Abaye seems to be recognizing that the success of his institution is being hindered by his focus on 'Gemilut Chasadim'. In order for a 'miracle' to happen - and I can't help but think that Abaye said this with a sarcastic tone - we're going to have to hold back on the Chessed just a bit.
Abaye's overarching educational goals remained the same. But he's re-evaluating how to get there. Perhaps a well-rounded adult doesn't start off as a well-rounded child. Success of the Abaye model relies heavily on the motivation and passion necessary to embrace divergent extremes. Certainly, it's necessary to sensitize to the plight of the Other, to a culture of Chessed. But that doesn't mean that the bachurim should be running around volunteering when they belong in the Beit Midrash. Adulthood is all about competing claims on my time, energy, and focus. Preparing children for that might not mean pulling them in numerous directions, rather developing a wholesomeness and a completeness that will enable them to find meaning, duty, and fulfillment when adulthood sets in. Perhaps that development would demand that more attention is paid to developing the whole personality - Torah and Halacha at its best. A balanced adult may be the mature version of the imbalanced child.
R' Aha confronts the problem. It appear to him as a seven-headed monster. Chaos. Multiplicity. The students in this Yeshiva are burdened with so many competing claims - Torah, secular subjects, community service, yearbook, debate, varsity, etc., etc. etc. Their minds are divided. Passion is generated by 'single-mindedness'. When the mind is all over the place - naturally, as in the ADD student, or de facto, because of the particular style of education - everything becomes a burden, and nothing inspires. Again, autobiographically, I can report that a 'seven-headed monster' is an apt symbol for ADD. At its worst, the distraction created by a large variety of responsibilities can be completely debilitating. And modern Orthodox schools often drive to distraction even those who are not naturally driven there.
His solution is 'bowing'. Connotations of prayer, submission, inwardness. Abaye was a great man but not a great role model. One does not become like Abaye by imitating Abaye. That was his educational failure. R' Aha demonstrates how to overcome the demon. A mind which is bifurcated cannot generate passion. A whole mind, however, can apply tiself in several different contexts. Abaye wanted to train students to lead broad lives. Instead, he was training them to lead double lives. The answer lay in an overhaul - emphasis on inwardness, spirit, prayer, devotion. Experience single-mindedness. Throw yourself into ONE thing only, and then, over time, allow that ONE thing to grow, expand, embrace more and more of God's world. The counter-symbol to the serpent is the Menorah - seven branches, but all of one piece, representing the unity that can underlie all of human wisdom and intelligence, and it's radiance and beauty when it does.
But just because R' Aha can demonstrate that it CAN be done, doesn't mean that there are any guarantees. 'Miracles' don't happen every day. If there's a flaw in the system, then an overhaul is called for, not a patch. Abaye is a long-term goal. An ideal. His approach might not ever work in an educatinal setting, except for the occasional 'miracle'. Perhaps the prerequisite for an integrated adult is serious time spent in intense Torah study, and Torah study alone. Perhaps a 'right-wing' educational style is the best prerequisite for truly 'modern Orthodox' adults.