Intellectual Honesty and "the Et Theory"
The Torah says in Parashat Eikev, "Et Hashem Elokecha Tira" – "You shall fear Hashem your God" (10:20), introducing the Mitzva of Yir'at Hashem – to live with a sense of awe and fear of the Almighty.
The Talmud tells of a Rabbi named Shimon Ha'amsoni, who developed a theory that we might call "the Et theory." The theory said that whenever we encounter the word "Et" in the Torah, it indicates that the phrase in question includes something in addition to what is explicitly mentioned in the verse. For example, the first verse of the Torah tells that God created "Et Ha'shamayim Ve'et Ha'aretz" ("the heavens and the earth"). Shimon Ha'amsoni claimed that the word "Et" in this phrase comes to include the stars, which God created together with heaven and earth. And in the famous verse, "Kabed Et Avicha Ve'et Imecha" ("Honor your father and your father"), the word "Et" indicates that one's older brother is also included in this obligation; one must honor not only his parents, but his older brother, as well.
Shimon Ha'amsoni thus proceeded to find the meaning of every instance of the word "Et" in the Torah, successfully identifying something that the Torah seeks to include by adding the word "Et."
But then he came to Parashat Eikev, to the verse, "Et Hashem Elokecha Tira." What could the Torah possibly include together with God? Whom or what would the Torah demand that one fear as he fears God? Shimon Ha'amsoni could not imagine that the Torah would require that we experience fear of anything or anyone besides God, and thus concluded that his theory was mistaken. The word "Et" in this verse proved that this word does not indicate an extension of the verse to something else. He turned to God and asked that just as he received reward for the effort he invested in developing his theory, so should he be rewarded for honestly withdrawing from this theory.
The Gemara tells that "the Et theory" remained disproved until Rabbi Akiva came along and upheld it. He contended that the word "Et" in this verse comes to include Torah scholars, towards whom a person must feel a sense of awe and fear, just as he experiences fear towards God.
How did Rabbi Akiva arrive at this interpretation? What did he see that led him to conclude that one must fear Torah scholars just as he fears God?
The answer was given that Rabbi Akiva was inspired by his colleague, Shimon Ha'amsoni. Shimon Ha'amsoni was prepared to forego on his life's work, to tear up years' worth of novel interpretations, and rescind a theory that he devoted countless hours developing and supporting, in the interest of intellectual honesty. Once he confronted an insurmountable refutation to his theory, he dropped it. So many thinkers and scientists stubbornly cling to their positions even after discovering a refutation, unable and unwilling to tear apart their life's work. But Rabbi Akiva saw that Shimon Ha'amsoni had the integrity to retract his theory when he realized that it could not be sustained.
This level of greatness inspired Rabbi Akiva to declare that Torah scholars are indeed deserving of being included in this verse. This degree of honesty and humility renders righteous people like Shimon Ha'amsoni worthy of being included together with the Almighty in the command, "Et Hashem Elokecha Tira," which thus demands that we show awe and reverence to not only God Himself, but also to Torah sages.