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Learning from Relationships

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

May 7, 2016

If someone were writing a book for students, you would expect it to be filled with exhortations to study harder, not to waste time, and to remember that school is your first priority. ( Students, is that the kind of advice you get from your parents?)

Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Father, the book of the Mishnah that is written for students of Torah, and which we read traditionally during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot when we count the Omer, does include a reminder that the study of Torah is our purpose in life and so should be our highest priority. It also contains a warning against procrastination- don’t say you’ll study when you have time, you will never have time—and a reminder about creating good study habits, by establishing a set time for study. Interestingly, even though it is a book for students,  its focus is not on study habits per-se but on building and sustaining right relationships.

In the world of Pirke Avot, having a study buddy, a chavruta, is very important. Finding the right person to study with and developing a deep and trusting relationship is important- that is why acquiring a friend, is held up by Joshua the son of Peracheyah, a very early teacher,  as one of the most important things one can do in life.

Though written with adults in mind, it’s actually not such bad advice for today’s high school and college students. That my oldest daughter went on to do more math at college is to a large extent due to her having a friend with whom she signed up for these more challenging classes. Then they sat down and worked on the problem sets together. Without Elizabeth, I’m not sure those classes would have been as much fun.

Having one close friend is important, but Pirke Avot also recommends being sociable in general. “Let your house be a meeting place”, Yose son of Yoezer advises us, and be a good neighbor, someone with “a kindly eye”, says Rabbi Eliezer,  and “a good heart”, says Rabbi Elazar.

Don’t rush to judge others but try instead to understand them by understanding their situation. As Hillel taught: “Don’t judge your fellow human being until you have reached that person’s place.”

We are advised to care are about what happens to others, as well as ourselves, whether this is avoiding embarrassing others or taking care of their stuff.  Again Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar: “Let your friends honor be as precious to you as your own,” and “let your friend’s property be as precious to you as your own. “

You might expect Pirke Avot to advise us to listen to our inner voice, to follow our own drummer. Instead it reminds us to be conscious also of the opinions of others.

Rabbi Judah, the head of the academy, urges us to keep these in balance. “What is the right path in life that one should select? One that seems honorable to oneself and brings honor bestowed by others” or sometimes translated “that is desirable for the one doing it and desirable to him for all humanity.”

Rabbi Judah was the compiler of the Mishnah and led the Jewish community during his life time. He was said to have been born on the day that Rabbi Akivah died, reminding us that he continued Akivah’s tradition of developing an understanding of Torah that was concerned with humanitarian issues. His teaching reminds us that acting only on our personal perceptions of the ideal, might cause us to go astray. Instead we can combine our personal perception of the right with the obligation also to live with social awareness, with the reality check of our impact on others.

 In a later chapter, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa will pick up this theme and teach, “whomsoever the people like, God likes.” Reading this initially it seems surprising. Is God moved by popularity, favoring the homecoming king and queen over someone who is perhaps shyer or more studious? Rabbi Chanina seems to have seen this as a question of whether the individual can impact others and integrate the good they have to teach into the community, as earlier in the chapter he praises wisdom that is accompanied by action in the real world.

(His teaching is seen as a complement to the advice found in the book of Proverbs 3:4 “So shall you find grace and favor in the sight of God and people”, words that we recognize from Bircat hamazon,   וּמְצָא-חֵן וְשֵׂכֶל-טוֹב--    בְּעֵינֵי אֱלֹהִים וְאָדָם )

Others translate Rabbi Chaninah’s teaching: “Everyone with whom the spirit of his fellows is at ease, the spirit of God is at ease with him.”

It is not about popularity, because sometimes people can be popular because others fear the possible consequences not acting with respect towards them can bring. It is about how people feel about someone deep in their heart, recognizing their goodness and kindness. That is the type of person we should aspire to be, and being that type of person, Pirke Avot assures us, will also make us successful in our roles as life time learners. 

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