Ethics – Now & Then 27 – Avot 2:13-14

Avot 2:13  He said to them: Go out and discern which is the good way to
                  which a man should cling. Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye.
                  Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend. Rabbi Yosei says: A good
                  neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the outcome
                  of a deed. Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart.
                 He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to them: I prefer the
                 words of Elazar ben Arach to your words, for your words are
                 included in his words.

Avot 2:14  He said to them: Go out and discern which is the evil way from
                  which a man should distance himself. Rabbi Eliezer says: An
                  evil eye. Rabbi Yehoshua says: A wicked friend. Rabbi Yosei
                  says: A wicked neighbor. Rabbi Shimon says: One who
                  borrows and does not repay; one who borrows from man is
                  like one who borrows from the Omnipresent, as it is said: ‘The
                  wicked one borrows and does not repay, but the Righteous
                  One is gracious and gives (Ps.37:21). Rabbi Elazar says: A
                  wicked heart.
                 He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] said to them: I prefer the
                 words of Elazar ben Arach to your words, for your words are
                 included in his words.

He said to them: Go out and discern which is the good way to which a man should cling.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai now encourages his disciples, who have proved to be good students and have gained much wisdom, to go out into the world and to observe the ways of people in everyday practical affairs and to see how their learning could best be applied in daily life. In the testing of life experience, what quality would appear to be the most important to cultivate in order to cling to the truth they had learned? He is intimating that if one’s understanding of what is good remains abstract, intellectual knowledge and does not connect with life it will prove to be empty and unproductive. The Hebrew words he uses in telling them to ‘go out and see’ – tze’u u’reu – poetically remind us of the first command God gave to Adam and Eve – p’ru ur’vu – be fruitful and multiply. A true disciple does not keep his learning or gifts to himself but, rather, seeks to share them with that they may bear fruit in the lives of others. In so doing, his own life is enriched.

Interestingly, the students’ replies reflect the outstanding characteristic of each one. In verse 14, Yochanan ben Zakkai instructs them also to observe and discern the evil or wicked way that a man should shun. We can compare both responses simultaneously.

Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye – ayin tovah.

The chief characteristic of a ‘good eye’ is that of generosity. As we see from the beginning – B’reishit – our Father God is the first and greatest Giver. As those made in His image, so too should we be givers. Giving, or having a good eye, is clarified in Proverbs 22:9, “He who has a good eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor.” This quality of generosity and helping others can be applied in regard to the ‘bread’ of one’s income, to tangible goods, and to the ‘bread’ of one’s knowledge. With a ‘good eye’ one is always on the lookout to give in whatever way possible in order to be a blessing to others.

What truly characterizes a ‘good eye,’ maybe more so than outward actions, is a person’s inner motivation: “A generous, unselfish spirit, an open-hearted receptivity to people, things and ideas; a wholesome acceptance of yourself and your lot in life.” [1] When one is kindly accepting of others and fully content with one’s “lot,” generosity , on all levels, will flow naturally from one’s life to bless others.

Conversely, as Rabbi Eliezer describes in verse 14, having an ‘evil eye’ – ayin ra’ah – denotes one is on a path of wickedness that one should strive to avoid. An evil eye is evidenced by a selfish, miserly spirit, which indicates that the person constantly is discontented with their lot in life and, as a result, is envious, jealous, critical and resentful of the happiness or success of others. They cannot cry with those who cry or rejoice with those who rejoice. When one suffers a dissatisfied outlook on life and is filled with complaint, the readiness to reach out, to share and to give help to others is negated. Rather than adding blessing, one increases the burden of others. The Torah specifically warns against this negative attitude: “Beware, lest your eye be evil against your needy brother, and you give him nothing.” [2]

Rabbi Yehoshua says: A good friend – chaver tov.

Life is like a journey through a wilderness – B’midbar – and the path you take and with whom you share the road is highly important. After his observation and deliberation, Rabbi Yehoshua proffers that being, and having, a good friend is of utmost value on life’s journey and that a bad friend could lead one on an evil path. It is a well-known fact that peers and associates have a great influence in a person’s life; either for good or bad. The complexities of relationships with friends and colleagues cause these to be areas of constant challenge and endeavor. However, when true friendship is forged and enjoyed, a strong, unshakeable bond of trust and harmony is set in place that bears ongoing good and benefit to all concerned. The way is made smoother and more pleasant, no matter the circumstances.

On the other hand, in the case of a bad friendship, the foundation of the relationship will prove to be unstable, as unpredictable and uncertain as shifting sand, and the effects will be negative and painful. The journey along the road will be made more difficult and possibly dangerous. The positive exhortations in Rabbi Yeshoshua’s answers are that one should be careful in choosing good friends and, also, that one should diligently aim to be a good friend.

Rabbi Yosei says: A good neighbor.

Rabbi Yosei is described as a chasid – a pious and good person. Understandably, he must have been a considerate and courteous neighbor who would have lived according to the unselfish principle later recorded in Avot 5:13, “What is yours is yours and what is mine is yours.”

The Torah records three specific areas where God emphasizes that one must love – Ve’ahavta.

  1. You shall love the Lord your God – Ve’ahavta et YHWH Eloheicha. (Deut. 6:5)
  2. You shall love your neighbor as yourself – Ve’ahavta le’rei’acha kemo’cha. (Lev. 19:18)
  3. You shall love the stranger in your midst as yourself – Ve’ahavta [ha’ger ha’gar itchem] kemo’cha. (Lev. 19:34)

Yeshua proclaimed that the first two can combine, as two sides of a coin, as the greatest commandment for if one truly loves the person who is made in God’s image, then you love God who created them and loves them. Vice versa, if you truly love God, who is Father of all, you will, if only for His sake, love His children. As God created all people, this automatically includes number 3, the ‘stranger in your midst.’. Yeshua then extends this love to include even one’s enemies – the most challenging love of all (Matt. 5:44; Lk. 6:27). He says, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Lk. 6:32). He sums up the concept in saying: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Lk. 6:39).

However, Rabbi Yosei also points out in verse 14 that one should, if possible, avoid a bad neighbor. Those who are unscrupulous and inconsiderate can make life very unpleasant and difficult. On the other hand, wherever one finds oneself one should aim to be the best neighbor one can be; first and foremost to one’s spouse, who is one’s closest ‘neighbor,’ and family, and then to those in one’s neighborhood and other circles of community.

Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the outcome of a deed.

We know that Rabbi Shimon feared sin. An important factor in avoiding sin is the ability to see the consequences of any sinful action clearly. The lure of sin is that it appears very inviting. However, once one succumbs to temptation and indulges in the sin, the agonies of remorse and guilt can be a torment to one’s soul. In addition, there usually are very real repercussions such as the severing of personal relationships, a ruined business, physical injury and, unless there is recognition of the sin and sincere repentance, a growing alienation from God and a sickening of the spirit. How foolish is sin! Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch used to say that if the hedonists would know the ecstasy of intimate union with the Holy One, blessed be He, they would instantly drop all their worldly pleasures and chase after it. It is not just pleasure. It is the source of all pleasures. [3]

In modern times, we now are offered many more opportunities and choices that necessitate more decisions and, consequently, more chances of failure, loss and rejection. This increases the likelihood of emotional reactions such as fear, anger and anxiety, which can become very deep-rooted. Thus, more than ever, we need the anchor of the truth of the Word of God. We must keep our eyes constantly focussed on our Lord and Shepherd and, in faith, trust Him to guide us in our decisions and to dispel any worry or fear. Yeshua assures his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Interestingly, it is only Rabbi Shimon’s answer in verse 14 that is not the opposite of his first answer; as in, e.g., a good eye and a bad eye. He responds that the ‘bad way’ is to borrow and not to repay what has been borrowed. He explains, “When someone borrows from a man, it is one and the same as borrowing from the Omnipresent God; as it is said, ‘The wicked borrows and does not repay, but the righteous one deals graciously and gives’” (Psalm 37:2). How does this relate to the concept of not seeing the full implications of one’s actions? In a very real sense, when one does not honor an agreement with one’s fellow man, e.g., in not repaying a loan, one also is dishonoring God. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, God gives the command, “If there be among you a needy person…you shall not harden your heart… but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.” In a sense, God is acting as guarantor of the loan. If, therefore, someone does not repay his loan, God is liable.

A lovely story is told of a poor man, and a stranger to the area, who approached Baron Rothschild for a loan of $1,000. He explained that he did not have an endorser who could co-sign as a guarantor of payment, adding sadly, “In fact, the only One who knows and trusts me is the Almighty Himself.” Rothschild gave him a penetrating stare and said, “Very well, that name will be fine!” To the man’s surprise, Rothschild drew up the loan and wrote, “Endorsed by the Ruler of the world.” The man faithfully returned in six months to repay the loan but the Baron refused to take the money. Totally surprised, the man asked why. Rothschild replied with a smile, “The loan has already been paid by the Endorser!” [4]

Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart.

Rabbi Elazar’s responses are, positively, a good heart – lev tov – and negatively, a bad heart – lev ra. Their master, Yochanan ben Zakkai, again informs the students, “I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach to your words, for your words are included in his words.” The Sages regarded the heart as the ‘seat of understanding,’ which would include knowledge, attitudes, motivations and intentions. A person with a good heart would wholeheartedly want to do what was right in every situation and would know, according to his dedication and study of the Word of God, what the right thing was. As Rabban ben Zakkai points out, this quality would include being generous spiritually and materially, being a good friend and neighbor and of having the ability to make decisions with foresight and to honestly fulfill one’s word.

The importance of the heart is stressed in the book of Proverbs, “Above all guard your heart for from it flow the springs of life” (4:23). If we desire our lives to be ‘streams of living water’ as that of Rabbi Elazar’s (Avot 2:12) and in accord with Yeshua’s promise to one who drinks from the water of Life that he offers, we need to ensure that our hearts constantly are protected and filled with God’s Word, Presence and Spirit.

The book of Deuteronomy (Devarim – Words) ends with the Hebrew letter lamed and, in the continuous flow of of the cycle of Torah, it joins with bet or vet, the first letter of Genesis (B’reishit – In the Beginning), to form the word lev – heart! The Torah, teachings of God, and the Living Torah, Yeshua, fills our hearts with knowledge and understanding and guide our every step along His “good way.”

 

Footnotes:

1. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics of Sinai, Vol. 1; 178
2. Deut. 15:9
3. A reference by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, Chabad.org
4. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics of Sinai, Vol 1; 180-181

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