Ethics – Now & Then 28 – Avot 2:15

Avot 2:15  They each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer says: (a) Let your
                  fellow’s honor be as dear to you as your own and do not anger
                  easily; (b) repent one day before your death; and (c) warm
                  yourself by the fire of the Sages, but beware of their glowing
                  coals lest you be burnt – for their bite is the bite of a fox, their
                  sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss the hiss of a serpent,
                  and all their words are like fiery coals.

They each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer says: (a) Let your fellow’s honor be as dear to you as your own and do not anger easily…

In summary, as it were, of their previous observations, each of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s five students say three things. Rabbi Eliezer had considered a ‘good eye’ of generosity and open-heartedness towards others as the highest quality of character. Here, he links anger and honor. Outbursts of anger toward another, whether they be friend, colleague or simply another human being, will very likely violate their self respect and honor. The one who is the target of anger will feel pain and humiliation. Even if there is just cause for anger, we should diligently avoid causing another that pain. The Talmud considers respecting the honor and dignity of another of such importance that it says: “Anyone who exalts himself, who derives honor out of the degradation or shame of his neighbor, has no share in the world to come.” [1]

In our daily lives, more often than not, it will be those closest to us who can truly upset or anger us. The actions of strangers do not affect us as deeply, unless they are directed against us personally or against those we love. When the conduct of a friend or family member causes one to feel angry, rather than giving vent to the emotion, one should immediately consider one’s own weaknesses and errors. Just as one is quick to make allowances and to forgive oneself, so should one be ready to “cut them some slack,” as the saying goes, and be quick to forgive another.

(b) Repent one day before your death…

The second statement is one of Rabbi Eliezer’s most often quoted maxims: “Repent one day before you die.” As no one naturally knows the day of one’s death, one cannot know the day before either. Rabbi Eliezer is exhorting us to regard each day as if it could be one’s last and, consequently, to value each day and to view it in an eternal perspective. One would then be quick to ‘mend one’s ways’ and to repent of any shortcomings. Yeshua’s striking parable of the foolish, rich man illustrates this well. His lands yielded such a great harvest that he determined to tear down his barns and build bigger ones in which to store the crops. He rejoiced that the bounty would provide income for many years and he could rest back and “…eat, drink and be merry. But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Lk. 12:16-21). As God is the true Provider and Source of all blessing, it is not wise to hoard and store up blessing for ourselves, but rather to give and to share whatever extra there is above one’s own needs and thus to keep the cycle of blessing flowing.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, apparently in connection with this teaching of Rabbi Eliezer, also told a parable that is recorded in the Talmud. It tells, in effect, how a king issued invitations to all his servants to attend a banquet but gave no time for the event. The wise servants hurried to prepare themselves and, dressed in their finest clothes, they waited at the entrance to the palace. They knew the King had everything at his disposal and could announce the banquet at any time. The foolish ones went about their regular business thinking that a banquet would take lengthy preparation and they would have plenty of time to get ready for it. Suddenly, the call went out, the palace doors opened and the servants were summoned in. The wise ones entered his presence dressed for the occasion, while the foolish ones rushed in dirty, wearing grimy work clothes. The King then commanded, “Let those who are dressed and prepared properly for the banquet sit and eat and drink; let those who did not, stand and look on!” [2]

The story carries strong echoes of the parable Yeshua told of the ten virgins; five of whom were prepared with sufficient oil for their lamps as they awaited the arrival of the Bridegroom for the wedding feast and five who were not (Matt. 25:1-3). Interestingly, considering Rabbi Eliezer’s exhortation regarding repentance, which was one of Yeshua’s main emphases and, in fact, was the subject of his first and last actual teachings during his ministry on earth, [3]
the Midrash adjures, “Repent while you have your strength, as long as the lamp still burns, add oil to it, before it goes out. Once the lamp is extinguished, the oil will avail nothing.” [4]

Oil, in the context above, is used as a symbol of repentance; as also is ensuring one is clean and properly dressed in order to enter the King’s presence. This requires a daily accounting, as it were, of one’s thoughts, words and deeds, and a readiness to repent in order to keep one’s lamp lit in eager anticipation of the arrival of the Bridegroom King!

(c) Warm yourself by the fire of the Sages, but beware of their glowing coals lest you be burnt – for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.

Rabbi Eliezer’s third point appears more obscure. He encourages all to draw near to the “fire” of the knowledge and teachings of the Sages in order to obtain the warmth of understanding and the spiritual satisfaction they provide. He also, however, gives a strong and seemingly exaggerated warning! One could, in the process, burn oneself and sustain injuries comparable with the bite of a fox, or the sting of a scorpion or the attack of a serpent. How could this be?

The benefits of fire are clear. It offers warmth and many practical benefits, such as heating water and cooking food. The Torah itself often is compared with fire. However, if one draws too close to it fire burns and yet if one moves too far from it one becomes cold. It is wise to know the correct distance to stand in relation to it in order to enjoy the heat that will reach out with encompassing warmth and illumination. It is foolish, whether in over-familiarity or inordinate curiosity, to disrespectfully reach in and grasp a glowing coal for oneself.

Christian scholar, Dr Herbert Danby, in the preface to his English translation of the Mishnah (the collection of rulings and interpretations made by the early Sages), writes: “Considering the centuries of intensive study devoted to the Mishnah and its associated literature by Jewish commentators from the time of the Talmud to the present day, to neglect or ignore their results is as presumptuous as it is precarious.” [5] If one is too quick to tear down or to ignore the teachings of the Sages, which are like fences of protection around the Scriptures, one increases the risk of exposure to the attacks of the elements of evil that are crouching ever-ready to devour the unprotected.

Yeshua, as he grew from boyhood, learned from the wisdom of the Sages’ interpretations and applications of the Torah and, when their teaching reflects the light of the Truth of the Word of God, his teachings meld with theirs. He condemns any hypocritical rule of man that adds unnecessary burden and makes “the commandment of God of no effect” (Matt. 15:3-9) but he commends the righteous teachings of the Rabbis that correspond with the Word of God, which Yeshua himself enfleshed, when he emphasizes: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Torah or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill [to add meaning]. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the Torah till all is fulfilled. Whoever, therefore, breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever does and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:17-20; Lk.16:17).

1. T.Y. Chagigah 2,1
2. T.B. Shabbat 153a
3. See Matt. 4:17 and Lk. 23:28-31, which essentially was a call to repentance
4. Midrash to Ecclesiastes 9:8; quoted in Ethics from Sinai Vol. 1, by Irving M. Bunim; 187
5. Ibid., 188; Dr. H. Danby, The Mishnah, London 1933; vi

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