“From when may one recite the kriat shema in the evening? From the time the kohanim enter to eat their terumah until the end of the first watch; these are the words of Rabbi Eliezer” (Brachot 2a).
It might be coincidental—after all, someone has to be first—but it is instructive that Rabbi Eliezer is the first of our sages mentioned in the Talmud. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkunos, known as Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol—Rabbi Eliezer the Great—was the top student of Rav Yochanan ben Zackai, who described him as “a plastered cistern who does not lose one drop.” He further noted that, “If all the sages of Israel were on one side of a scale, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos on the other, he would outweigh them all” (Avot 2:8).
Yet beyond his greatness in learning, there are more profound reasons for putting Rabbi Eliezer first. It was Rabbi Eliezer who, in a debate gone awry (see here), was excommunicated by his colleagues. We generally do not study the works of Torah, or quote the views of those who have been excommunicated. Yet this was not your regular excommunication. Rabbi Eliezer did not transgress any major directives of the Torah, nor did he teach heretical concepts, as was the case with Elisha ben Avuya.
Rather, he was excommunicated for his fierce intellectual independence, for his refusal to give in to the views of others. Intentionally or not, Rebbe Yehuda Hanassi, in the very first sentence of the Mishna brought Rabbi Eliezer back into the rabbinic fold, as first amongst equals. As is evident from reading the story in context (see here)—recorded in the middle of the discussion of the prohibition of ona’at devarim, causing needless mental anguish—his excommunication was a huge miscalculation, and one that led to tragedy. While the past cannot be undone, Rebbe wanted to move forward by including Rabbi Eliezer amongst our great sages.
Furthermore, Rebbe is stressing that learning requires fierce independence. While one must be open to the views of others—we follow the views of Beit Hillel because they first studied the view of Beit Shammai—but one must never be cowed by them. One can never become a Torah scholar absent the fortitude to hold true to one’s convictions, even if the majority disagree. In fact, a rabbinic authority who changes his view to conform to the majority may very well be in violation of the Torah prohibition, “Do not fear any man” (Devarim 1:17).
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkonos came from a very well-to-do family, and it was expected that he would join the “family agricultural business”, which he did for a number of years. However, at the age of 22, he yearned to study Torah. Unlike today, there was no formal Jewish schooling, and unless one’s father was learned—and Hurkunus was not—one remained ignorant (Avot D’Rabbi Natan Chapter 6).
Arriving at the Beit Midrash of Rav Yochanan ben Zackai, he had to be taught “kriat shema, tefillah, birchat hamazon, and two laws every day”. He studied with the greatest of diligence, and was supported by none other than Rav Yochanan ben Zackai. Meanwhile, his brothers complained to Hurkunos, saying, “Look what your son (not our brother) did! He left you in your old age and went to Jerusalem! Go and take an oath to disinherit him.” His father then went to Jerusalem to do exactly that.
On the day that he arrived, Rav Yochanan ben Zackai asked Rabbi Eliezer to give the derasha. “He rose and began, and expounded on things that no ear had ever before heard, his face radiated like the light of the sun…and no one knew whether it was night or day.” Upon seeing this, Hurkunos exclaimed, “How blessed am I that he is my son!” He then “stood on the chair, and said to his son in the presence of all: ‘I only came here to disinherit my son; now, all of my wealth will be left to Eliezer, my son.’” To which Rabbi Eliezer responded that he did not desire land nor money: “All I want from the Holy One, Blessed be He, is Torah.”
Can there be a better model as we begin learning Talmud? One can start at 22 like Rabbi Eliezer, at 40 like Rabbi Akiva, or at retirement like many today. Age is no impediment to greatness—provided one is willing to work hard, and willing to sacrifice material wealth if need be.
Perhaps Rebbe wanted to highlight the tremendous efforts Rabbi Eliezer made, and the hardship he was willing to endure, to become a great sage in Israel.
Rabbi Eliezer had another quality that provides a model for learning. As noted above, he “expounded on things that no ear had ever before heard… and no one knew whether it was night or day”. Here was an original and creative thinker whose spellbinding oratory kept people glued to their seats, oblivious to the passage of time. Yet, on the other hand, Rabbi Eliezer said about himself that “I have never taught anything which I have not learned from my masters" (Sukkah 28a).
So which is it? Was Rabbi Eliezer the great traditionalist, refusing to say something he had not heard from his teachers, or was he the great innovator, the most original mind that the Jewish people had yet seen?
There is no need to see these views as contradictory. One can teach the most original of ideas and yet teach only what one has heard from one's teachers. The greatest teachers are able to take the knowledge received from their teachers and apply it to the new circumstances. While the output might appear very different it is, in actuality, just another way to express timeless ideas in a new and more appropriate fashion. The style might be different, but the content is the same.
In modern times, no one better exemplified the combination of creative genius who expressed words that no one else had heard before while remaining totally faithful to his teachers, traditions and Torah than Rav Soloveitchik. The Rav, who was so different in so many ways from his illustrious grandfather, Rav Chaim, faithfully continued the Torah way of the mesorah that was entrusted to him via his grandfather. He was once asked how Yeshiva University could allow secular studies when his great-great-grandfather, the Netziv, closed the Volozhin Yeshiva rather than allow secular studies. Rav Soloveitchik responded simply: “Times are different”. Being faithful to one’s teachers often requires great innovation.
I cannot know if Rebbe Yehuda Hanassi purposely organized the Mishna so that Rabbi Eliezer would be the first to appear. But I do know there is much we can learn from the life of Rabbi Eliezer to guide us in our learning.
 This is true regarding learning, i.e., theory only. When it comes to practice, oftentimes (but not always), one must defer to the majority view. Religious anarchy is a dangerous path as related to practice.
 While that may appear cruel, it is actually to his credit that before doing so, he wanted to see what his son was doing. That he came with an open mind is evident from the continuation of the story.
 It is interesting to note that Rebbe himself was a very wealthy man. In an ideal world, Torah learning and wealth co-exist beautifully. We mean it when we pray three times a day for wisdom, Torah and wealth.
 I thank Rabbi Steven Pruzansky for this insight.
 Closer to home, this is almost exactly how people—pretty much everyone who ever attended—described the talks of Rabbi Soloveitchik.
 One might be tempted to ignore Rabbi Eliezer’s self-assessment; modern research has taught us that these are inherently biased and unreliable. There is good reason the halacha states that, “Adam karov etzel atzmo, one is close to oneself” and hence, one is ineligible to testify regarding oneself. Nonetheless, it is Rabbi Elazar ben Arach who Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackai describes as “an overflowing spring”, i.e., one of great creative originality, whereas the description of Rabbi Eliezer as “a plastered cistern who never lost a drop” highlights his photographic memory, not his creative genius.
 As has been demonstratively proven by Rabbi J. J. Schacter (“Haskalah, Secular Studies and the Close of the Yeshiva in Volozhim in 1892” Torah Umadah Journal vol. 2 (1990)) and others, this claim is simply not true and, in fact, secular studies were offered at Volozhin Yeshiva.
 Heard from Rav Herschel Schachter.