In the study of Torah, every season welcomes a new subject of interest, a new opportunity. As the summer approaches, there is a custom to study a chapter of Ethics of our Fathers every week, the body of classical Jewish literature dedicated, not to defining the parameters of law but rather, to character refinement.
Two reasons are given for this custom. One is a preparation for the upcoming festival of Shavuot, when we relive the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This is reminiscent of the saying “acting decently is a prerequisite for Torah.” The other reason has to do with combating the natural tendencies provoked by the summer atmosphere. The summer is a time of vacation, relaxation, when the heat rises, and our general intensity and focus slow down.
During this time, we get comfortable, face distractions, and run the risk of becoming lax in our pursuit of self refinement. To counteract this, we introduce the appropriate spiritual medicine that can reduce the fever of lust and moral sloppiness- an examination of the collection of advice from our Sages known as Pirkei Avos.
Let’s look at a piece from one well known statement in Chapter 1;6: “Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.” This Mishna is fairly straightforward, providing two essential ingredients for success, two crucial relationships, as one moves through life. But zoning in on the precise wording in Hebrew, we can uncover the depth within this recipe.
When it comes to a teacher, the Mishna uses the word aseh, which is more like “assume” or “appoint.” When it comes to friend, however, the choice of words is kaneh– to “acquire.” The noticeable question is: why the switch? Why not be consistent in the expressions and say “Acquire for yourself a teacher” or “appoint for yourself a friend”?
To answer this we must understand why it is so important to have a teacher in the first place. First, the teacher- “Rav”– to which this refers is not simply a person to provide more knowledge. It is more of a mentor, a guide, a person that can provide a higher outlook, to whom one turns to seek counsel. In addition to the obvious encouragement to gain knowledge, and to find the best person to provide this, the basis for such an instruction is the need for distance when making tough decisions- a more objective voice.
We are very close to ourselves. Emotions, impulses, visions of how we want things to be can often get in the way of us seeing clearly. Even the wisest person can fall prey to these mental traps when there is a lot at stake. Here, ripe age, experience, and intelligence are not an adequate substitute for advice.
The Mishna then informs us that, even if we cannot find the perfect person, we must nevertheless “appoint” someone to serve as our guide, even if we have not yet found that perfect match. This will not only ensure that we continue to progress and learn, but protect us from making bad decisions.
A good friend is different. It is not someone we simply “appoint” out of necessity, to fill a certain role. A good friendship cannot be imposed. He or she must be “acquired” in the sense that there is a good fit, a palatable connection. A good friend is someone with whom one can be free, completely oneself, with all one’s weakness and strengths- yet without any feeling of being judged or scrutinized. It is also a good friend that can lead one to the right mentor or help implement the advice.
There is a general principle: a good relationship exposes strengths and helps one accomplish their ultimate purpose. A bad relationship takes one off course. A good relationship will enhance other important relationships; a bad relationship will distract one, separate one from other key relationships in life.
These short but sweet lines in Ethics of our Fathers encourage us to think about who fits the profile of a good mentor and a good friend, and to make sure we spend the necessary time with them. These two relationships are the unspoken source of souvenirs in our life accomplishments that both save us from unnecessary mistakes and stress, and take us to the greatest heights.