Prime Principles: Pirke Abot 1:6 – Masters, Comrades & Connections
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Pirke Abot 1:6
Masters, Comrades and Connections
Yehoshua ben Perahia says,
‘Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person on a scale of merit.’
We move in this mishna from the environments within which we build our lives to the people with whom we build them. Maintaining a close relationship with anyone in our lives for a prolonged period of time is a considerable challenge. We are not consistent creatures. We have dark sides, erratic moods, character flaws, failures that, when shown to others, make it hard for most people to stay close and committed to us and, of course, us to them. This is true with families, friends, lovers, mentors — just about every human relationship we know. Few of us are able to hold fast to true friendship and bonding when our hard times and real needs for support come calling.
We all need certain people in our lives who are not necessarily bound to us biologically, but who love us for who we are before judging what we do.
There are two specific relationships here that Yehoshua ben Perahia tells us we should have in life — indeed that we should make happen in our lives. One is a master/mentor or Rab and the other is a friend or haber. We will examine the nature of both, respectively.
The relationship of mentor and disciple, Rab and talmid, is unique among all human connections. It is at once, intimate, deep, loving, filled with respect and reverence, and built on profound commitment and dedication. It is the bonding of two souls for the sake of discovering wisdom and ultimately God together. While one is a master and the other an apprentice, both grow from the interaction.
Students increase their master’s wisdom and broaden his mind. Our Sages declared: “I learned much wisdom from my teachers and even more from my colleagues. However, from my students [I learned] most of all. Just as a small branch is used to light a large bough, so a small student sharpens his teacher, until, through his questions, he brings forth brilliant wisdom.
(Rambam, Talmud Torah, 5:13)
The Rab sees potential in his student, believes in him, encourages him to be his best, and sees through any of his flawed thoughts and acts to the splendour of his being. The Rab presents his student with a framework for reality within which we can achieve our greatest selves and reach wholeness and wisdom. He focuses on teaching us how to think over and above what to think. It is not only the data per se, but the value and context for the data that he imparts. The Rab is our guide on a path of life that is viable and nurturing. For the nation of Israel, the Rab is a master of Torah and its teachings. He shows us the way.
A Rab is one…who establishes a person upon a straight path of truth.(R. Moshe Iserlis, Yore De’a, 242:30)
Because this relationship is so personal and intimate, the Rab must know the student well in order to impart a path of life.
Dedicate yourself to a young person according to his own way; he will [then] not veer from it even in old age. (Proverbs, 22:6)
He must therefore, learn about his students, know their personalities, their struggles, their sorrows and joys.
He must bring them into a thriving spiritual life.
One’s master, who teaches him wisdom, brings him into the life of the world to come. (Rambam, Talmud Torah, 5:1)
This is far more than the disciplines of academia. It is love, and it can only happen from a heart that is capable and open to loving. As a parent loves their child simply because he or she is that person’s flesh and blood, so does the Rab love a student because the soul of that student seeks life from him. It is in this regard that a master and student are spiritual parent and child.
Teach them to your children. (Deut., 6:7)
To your children: These are your disciples. And thus do you find in all places, that disciples are called ‘children’. ‘And the children of the prophets came forth.’ (II Kings 2:3) Now were they the children of the prophets? Were they not disciples? This shows that disciples were called ‘children’. (Sifre, Debarim, 34)
To establish a Rab for oneself is to enter into a close and vulnerable relationship. For the Rab to accept it is to do the same. It is a vulnerable relationship because of the love and care that are invested in it — there is commitment and dedication on the part of the Rab towards the spiritual growth and welfare of the student and there is commitment and dedication on the part of the student to respect and be faithful to the guidance that the Rab imparts. On both sides there is a willingness to be open and genuine with the other.
Both on the side of the student:
[A student who] saw his teacher transgress the words of the Torah should tell him: you have taught us such and such. (Rambam, ibid, 5:)
The student should not say “I understood” when he did not understand. Rather, he should ask again and again, even if he requires several repetitions. If his teacher becomes upset with him and displays anger, he should tell him: “My teacher, this is Torah. It is necessary that I study….(ibid., 3:4)
And that of the master:
The master may, if he desires, forgo his honour with regard to any or all matters [of respect] to any or all of his students. (ibid., 5:11)
A teacher is obligated to honour his students and encourage them. Our Sages said: ‘The honour of your students should be as dear to you as your own’. A teacher should take care of his students and love them….(ibid., 5:12)
Because of these intimate connections, there can also be tragic heartbreak. Such stories abound in our histories of love between master and disciple.
One of the most heartbreaking are recorded in the Rambam’s words upon the death of his younger brother who was also his closest friend and disciple.
[My brother] the tsadik, may his memory be blessed, drown in the Indian Ocean…For a year after the terrible message I am bedridden with sickness and worry, I have all but perished. From that time, for eight years now I mourn and find no comfort. In what will I find comfort?? He was like my son, he grew up on my lap, my brother, my disciple….(Rambam’s Letters, Yitzhak Shelat, p. 229-230)
Yehoshua ben Perahia asserts here that we are not commanded to passively accept upon ourselves a Rab, but rather to make one for ourselves — establish one in our lives. To seek and ask this of someone is a serious request and the decision of a Rab to accept a talmid is a serious decision. For properly, once the Rab accepts, he is forever committed to that talmid in good times and bad, and he is bound to teach the talmid all he needs in order to learn and grow. He must be there for him in support at times of strife. Come what may.
The Sages taught: In the case of a student who was exiled [to a city of refuge], his teacher is exiled with him, so that the student can continue studying Torah with him there.
It is, as Yehoshua ben Perahia intimates, one of the most important relationships we can have in life.
The second relationship is that of a friend. The Tanna tells us to ‘acquire’ a friend. The fact that it must be an acquisition implies that it is not easily achievable. We acquire something by giving something of value in exchange for it. The elements of value that we give for friendship are care, compassion, faithfulness and trust.
Care means that we are concerned with what happens to the one we call a friend. We care about their needs, ambitions, successes and failures. We pay attention. Compassion literally means we ‘suffer’ with them. We feel with them their pains, worries, and struggles. Faithfulness means that we do not selfishly leave them when things become difficult, and we do not forsake them. Trust means that they can share with us, show themselves to us, be vulnerable with us, open up to us and we can be trusted to respect their vulnerability and protect their secrets.
A true friend, or what we might call a ‘best friend’ is not necessarily the one with whom we spend the most time, or the one with whom we laugh, it is the one who, when we are at our lowest, saddest, and most vulnerable, is there beside us without judgement and with love. And when we are at our highest, happiest and most whole moments, they are beside us, either in person or in heart, rejoicing with us.
Such a person is hard for us both to be and to find. And therefore, such a person is most precious. But Yehoshua ben Perahia is not speaking to us here of luxury, but necessity. Establish a Rab! Acquire a friend! Without them, there is a core aspect of ourselves that dies.
Either friendship or death. (Ta’anit, 23a)
The commitment required to be a friend is among the greatest that we make in life and the blessings of finding such a person who is willing to be one for us is among the most treasured and blessed aspects of life that we can find.
A [true] friend is only acquired with the greatest difficulty. The sages said, acquire a friend with whom you can study, eat, drink and reveal your secrets. (Sifre, Vayelekh)
Because finding and maintaining true friendship takes a great deal of our mental, spiritual and emotional focus and energy there are few with whom we can truly find it. We don’t do this for just anyone. We have to carefully consider being someone’s friend.
Rambam writes that part of ‘acquiring’ a friend requires us to be aware of who our friend is and what he needs from us.
The [Sages] used ‘acquire’ rather than ‘make’ or ‘connect’ with a friend because it is fitting to take a friend for oneself at all costs so that all of one’s dealings in life will be good, as they say ‘either friendship or death’. And if one does not initially find friendship, one must work towards it until he makes friends. He must not refrain from acting in accordance with the spirit of the person (he wishes to befriend) until the friendship is strengthened. As the moralists say: ‘If you want to be friends with someone do not approach them according to your way, rather approach them according to the way of your friend’. If both parties act in this way, the desire of both will be to fulfil the needs and desires of the other. Thus, they end up wishing for the same goal without a doubt.
(Rambam, Commentary on the Mishna, ad loc.)
To have someone whom we can love purely beyond any sexual tensions, and on whom we can rely and trust, with whom we can not only be ourselves, but become better versions of ourselves, is to walk in this world with a true companion and to know that in this world there is at least one human being who, come what may, loves you for you, always.
In both the case of the Rab and the haber, the mentor and the friend, (which many of the commentators suggest can be the same person) we are speaking of a person who focuses on the person’s essence, the soul, the life-force that is the expression of their very being. It is the recognition of the unique expression of the spirit of God in them that we cherish for its having been created. And even in the deeds that such a person may do which are incongruent with the splendour of their soul, the mentor and friend never loses sight of that soul and its inherent beauty. One can be fully oneself with a true mentor or friend.
A trusted friend is one on whom you rely completely and in front of whom you do not refrain from doing or saying anything. You reveal to him all your affairs, both good and bad, without worrying that doing so will cause you shame or embarrassment neither to you nor to another person. When a soul has trust with another to such a degree there is great satisfaction in speaking with him and connecting with him…the highest level of this relationship…is what Yehoshua ben Perahia commanded, and is that of the Rab to the talmid and the talmid to the Rab.
(Rambam, Commentary on the Mishna, ibid.)
A key to achieving these great relationships is revealed in Yehoshua ben Perahia’s final point: ‘Judge the whole person on the scale of merit’.
When we judge the whole person as opposed to judging specific aspects, traits, behaviours and physical attributes alone, we are more prone to seeing the real individual — the soul of the person. Judge a whole being, and do so in the light of favour.
It does not say judge ‘every person’ but judge the ‘entire person’. This means that even though there may well be some negative elements to the person, when they are judged in the context of the person as a whole, the merits will outweigh the negative details. The entire person means the collective attributes of the whole individual.
(Sefat Emet, ad loc)
Look not only at what the person does, but at the fact that the person is a creation of God, with a soul imbued by the breath of God, created in the image of God. A person is precious simply because of this.
If you do not judge a person favourably, you will have no friends! We can always judge people negatively, which destroys any possibility of friendship.
(R. Obadia Seforno, ad loc)
Therefore, we are to always judge a person on the side of merit. Even if we see a person doing something that seems incorrect we must not assume that it is so and certainly not that he or she intends to do so, but find every reason to see it in good light. In doing so we train ourselves to always see the goodness in them and the bonds of human connection can be nourished and maintained.
There is, however, one caveat. We must not compromise our good will for selfish people who seek only to take from the world; people who, for their own benefit and pleasure, would do ill to others. In Torah, we call such people resha’im. When we have the unfortunate situation of knowing and having to interact with such people, we are cautioned by the Sages to assume the worst due to their consistently poor track record.
If a person was known to be immoral in his actions, and he did something that seemed for all intents and purposes to be good, if it is possible that there was an unlikely immoral motive involved we must be careful and not believe that he did it for the good for do not believe such a person, [for every action] there are ‘seven obscenities in his heart’ (Proverbs, 26:25)
(Rambam, Commentary on the Mishna, ibid.)
While Torah requires us to be compassionate and caring, it also does not expect us to be stupid. The reality is that there are bad people in this world. Bad because they consistently choose to darken their own souls and the world around them with selfish, harmful and counterproductive choices and actions in life. Such individuals are not to be trusted. There are times when a person’s behaviour is so reinforced by consistency that while we pray for their reform, we nonetheless treat the current reality of their psychology and behaviour seriously.
The default, however, is to believe in the goodness of the human spirit and to judge others with favour. And in our interactions, among all the people that we meet and know in this life, Yehoshua ben Perahia teaches us that we must find two special ones who will love us for who we are and seek our greatest good. We must establish a mentor and acquire a friend who will care for and support us on our path in life…and, as reason would have it, we could and should strive to do the same for another.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
 See the tragedy of Ribbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish, Baba Metsia, 84a. See also Aboda Zara 19b.
 Gen., 1:27
 Gen., 2:7