Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
December 4, 2020
Pirkei Avot 1:7
Two weeks ago when I spoke about Pirkei Avot 1:6, the focus was on how we connect to others. It discussed looking for the best in others, being devoted to our teachers and friends. This week we find a different perspective. What do we do with those whose values contradict ours, with those who would lead us towards dark or dangerous choices?
Nittai, or perhaps Mittai as in some manuscripts, was the Av Bet Din, under the leadership of Yehoshua ben Perachya (mentioned last time), in the late second century BCE. While not much is known about him, nor do we have any laws attributed to him, we do know he was a contemporary of Yochanan ben Hyrcanus, the High Priest and military leader. That Yochanan was initially an ally of the Pharisees, the proto-rabbis, but switched allegiances at the end of his life to become a Sadducee. Perhaps this betrayal upset Nittai/Mittai to share this challenge with us.
In Rabbi Mark Angel’s Koren Pirkei Avot he agrees with Nittai’s initial statements, noting that when we befriend those who do evil, we can slowly make poorer choices, leading us on a difficult path. How many parents have made similar comments to their children? “Don’t hang out with those friends--they are going to lead you astray?”
Yet even with that concern, Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz reminds us of the Chasidic dictum that the biblical Noah was a ““tzadik in peltz”, a righteous person in a fur coat.” (p. 27). When we are cold, we can put on a coat, taking care of our own needs, or we can light a fire, warming those around us, too. We do need to protect ourselves, but we should also strive to help those around us. Yanklowitz also quotes the S’fat Emet, noting that sometimes we may find the “bad neighbor” within ourselves--we need to root out our own poor decisions before we call out those of another.
Finally, while the statement about divine retribution seems challenging, it is merely saying that what happens in this world may not always match the world to come. It is one solution to the problem of evil in this world or theodicy--why bad things happen to good people--that what looks like success or honor in this life may not always transfer in the next--or even be the truth now! Some people look like they have everything yet remain unsatisfied, bitter, miserable. Some people’s lives seem objectively terrible, yet they find great satisfaction through their kindness and compassion now.
That may be comforting to some, while less reassuring to others. Even as I read this week’s Mishnah, I am more drawn to last week--I’d rather see the good in others and sometimes be hurt--than look more cynically at the world. Shabbat shalom!
My Pirkei Avot message can be found at twenty eight minutes and 8 seconds: 28:08: