The gemara brings the interesting story of R’ Eliezer’s death. The sages came to visit him as he was dying, but would not come within a certain distance of him. This was because they had placed a ban on him because he had been adamant in his opinion and had not submitted to the majority (see Rashi). When he asks them why they had not come until this time, they respond that they did not have an opportunity. Rashi explains that this was said, despite the fact that the true reason was because of his excommunication, in order not to make him feel bad. He then told them that as a result of the fact that they had not come to learn from him, they would die a brutal death. He then proceeded to say that he, himself, had not gained all that was possible from his teachers (“I was like a dog lapping up the sea”), and his students, as well, did not gain as much as they could from him, despite the fact that he taught a lot. He then proceeds to tell how he was extremely well-versed in the areas of nega’im and kishuf, and how no one asked him questions in these areas, except for R’ Akiva in the area of kishuf.
It is interesting that he describes his knowledge in terms of the number three hundred or three thousand. It could be explained that the number three (which is here divided by ten to give us three hundred parts, and possibly again by ten to give us three thousand parts) represents the first three sefiros of the seven lower sefiros, which are chesed, gevurah and tiferes. These three sefiros describe the ability and desire to give from the side of the giver, but do not actually involve an interaction with the receiver. This would flow nicely with his theme that he had much to teach, but no one to receive.
His students then proceed to ask him a question in regards to his opinion in a case that they argued with him. The case involves the status of a vessel that is made to permanently receive, in that once it is filled, it is closed up. R’ Eliezer held that it is called a vessel, and that its reception has significance, whereas the sages held that a vessel only has significance in its reception if it is filled, emptied, and filled again, but not if it is only filled once and remains filled. It seems clear to be, be’H, that this argument is actually a philosophical debate between the sages and R’ Eliezer as to what one’s approach should be to one’s learning. R’ Eliezer held that once one understands a concept, and it fills his mind (paralleling the filling of the vessel), if one closes his mind to other understandings, it is still considered that he is a vessel. The sages disagreed, and held that in order for one to be considered a proper vessel for Torah, one has to be able to question that which one has previously received, in light of new information that has been presented by other opinions. If one can not empty that which is inside of himself in order to accept more information, he is not considered a vessel at all. Thus, there was a subtle hint in their statement as to why they had not come until now.
It would also seem that the second question they asked was a subtle response to R’ Eliezer saying that they had not received all the Torah that they could have from him, and therefore they were intrinsically flawed, and would die horrible deaths as a result. They spoke of another case where they disagreed, which was where there was a shoe that was still sitting on the mold on which it was made, and was completed, for all intents and purpose, save for the fact that it needed to be removed from the mold in order to be worn. In this case, R’ Eliezer held that the shoe was not completed, because it could not yet be used, and was therefore not considered a vessel. The sages, however, held that since it did not require a craftsman to remove it from the mold, it was considered that it was not missing a significant act to complete it, and therefore it had the status of a completed vessel. This could reflect the fact that R’ Eliezer held that these sages were like incomplete vessels, who were in the process of molding themselves after their teacher. Although they had gained a lot, they were not yet complete, and because they did not yet remove themselves from the mold, as it were, they were not considered vessels. The sages, however, held that they had molded themselves as much as they could after their teacher, and the remaining work they had to do was a ‘maaseh hedyot’ – an act that did not require a professional. They held that the finishing touches on their ‘vessel’ could be done on their own, and did not require a teacher, and thus, they held that they were completed vessels in this sense. R’ Eliezer was explaining to them that he was, in a sense, the shoe that was filled in order for other shoes to be molded around it and formed into vessels. Thus, even though they argued with him, and they seemed to be a majority, in truth, they were not completed vessels, and were not fit to argue with him. This was why R’ Yehoshua immediately got up on his feet and lifted the ban that had been on R’ Eliezer, because they now understood his thinking, and they realized that R’ Eliezer was indeed on a different plane than they were. This is also reflected in the words of R’ Akiva, where he describes R’ Eliezer as “my father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its parashim,” that R’ Eliezer was like a father, on a different level altogether from the sages around him, and like a chariot upon which the people of Israel would ride, a vehicle for them to become great in Torah. He was the one who carried them, on a completely different level than those he carried.