Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
November 20, 2020
Pirkei Avot 1:6
This Mishnah follows a pattern we have seen before, it discusses a zug, a pair of scholars serving as the Nasi and Av Bet Din, the political and spiritual leaders of the Jewish community in their generation. It then teaches a threefold message that in just a few words makes us consider a philosophy of life, of what is vitally important.
Yehoshua ben Perahya teaches that we need a teacher, a friend, and that as we speak to others we should judge them favorably.
The phrasing around finding teacher is fascinating. It does not merely say “find” a teacher, but make, appoint, create. In order to make a teacher, we have to acknowledge that we can learn and that someone else can teach. We need humility to understand the things that we do not know. We must recognize our own imperfections and desire to remedy them. In finding a teacher this way, we are not looking for someone who will simply say we are great, but rather someone who will challenge us, push us, help us grow.
The Tosafot Yom Tov, a medieval commentator on the Mishnah and Talmud, teaches “As he wrote that "a man must acquire for himself a confidant for his actions and all of his affairs to be bettered, as they said (Taanit 23a), 'either a friend or death, etc.' And he needs to make efforts, etc... so that he brings him to his love, etc."” (https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.1.6?lang=bi&with=Ikar%20Tosafot%20Yom%20Tov&lang2=en)
Acquiring a friend is hard work! It requires give and take. It requires trust and hope. It requires being there for their needs, as well as one’s own. In Jewish tradition, if we relate this to study, we speak of a hevruta, a study-partner, someone with whom to discuss text and ideas. To find a hevruta, you want someone with complimentary skills. You do not want someone who always agrees with you, but someone who, like your teacher, pushes you and calls you out when you are not making your best efforts.
Finally Yehoshua teaches us a positive way of looking at the world. In every conversation we have, in every interaction online, via email, text, zoom, or even in person, there is so much to the conversation. Our body language, our eyes, our hand gestures, demonstrate our meaning. In today’s world, far too often we are communicating without the nuance of the physical. As such, we can so easily misinterpret a message from someone else. What if we looked at those messages differently? What if we looked at the world differently? In every interaction we can imagine another’s statement positively, neutrally, or negatively (and a thousand gradations in between). How often do we misunderstand someone’s intention when we simply misinterpreted their tone? Especially in our digital world, this lesson is so incredibly vital. If we judge people favorably, we may find the reaction is the same for us!
This is one area where I strive to improve. There are days when I see messages and read them in the worst possible way, rather than the best. Shifting perspective we can find that our angst and agita was unnecessary, and suddenly our world seems a lot brighter. Ken yehi ratzon, let it be God’s will that we live in a world where we all see the best in one another. Shabbat shalom.