Rebbe Eliezer’s lesson “The honor of your friend should be as beloved to you as your own honor” is of great significance in teaching a person how to reach “Olam HaBah” (the World To Come).
In Berachoth (28b) we are taught that when Rebbe Eliezer became very ill, his students went to him and said “Our Rabbi — teach us the proper way to live, in order that we may merit “Olam HaBah.” He said to them “Be careful in regard to the honor (respect and esteem) of your friends…” We see that the lesson Rebbe Eliezer taught in our Mishna, taking care of the honor of one’s friends, brings a person to the eternal life of “Olam HaBah.”
What source do we have to indicate that this would bring a person to “Olam HaBah,” and WHY should such a thing be true?
If we are taught (Bava Metzia 59a) that one who embarrasses another person has no (read: loses his) portion in “Olam HaBah,” then it follows that one who behaves in the opposite way, taking care of the honor and esteem of his fellow man, will be on the path to “Olam HaBah.” (This will be explained in more detail in Ch. 3, Mishna 15 “…One who humiliates another in public…”)
The reason this is true is that showing proper respect to man, who was created as a reflection of the Almighty himself, acknowledges the existence of this Divine element in the human being. This element is drawn from the transcendent dimension of reality, the spiritual world, and its existence in man is indicated in the verse (Breishith 1:26) “Let us make man as a reflection of us, similar to us.” (G-d is conversing with the Angels, and this verse indicates that there is a component of man which is similar to that of the Angels, who are purely spiritual and transcendent beings.) It is this transcendent dimension which is the source of man’s eternity, the life of “Olam HaBah.”
So Rebbe Eliezer taught his students (Berachoth 28b) that when you show the proper respect to your fellow man, you earn “Olam HaBah,” as opposed to humiliating, Heaven forbid, the Divine element of your fellow man, which is the sole source of human eternity.
We are also taught (Mechilta Shemoth 20:23, quoted by Rashi ibid.): “And don’t go up steps to my altar.” Rebbe Yishmael says: The lesson is one of “kal vachomer” (a fortiori; if something is true in case A, it is all the more true in case B). Stones have no awareness whatsoever, positive or negative; yet G-d taught us not to behave towards them in a disrespectful way. It is all the more imperative that towards your friend, who is created as a reflection of the Creator of the world, you should not behave in a way that is disrespectful.
(The lesson of disrespect itself is being extracted from the quoted verse by comparing the subtle lack of modesty exhibited when one climbs a set of stairs compared to walking up a ramp. We probably have lost sensitivity to both modesty and respect to properly appreciate this lesson.)
We see from the language of the lesson that the importance of showing respect to our fellow man is rooted in the Divine element that he embodies, which is the highest dimension of the human being. It is through this elevated dimension of man that he is able reach the highest dimension of existence, which is “Olam HaBah.” This relationship was the source for Rebbe Eliezer’s lesson to his students about the path to “Olam HaBah, which brings man from “Olam HaZeh,” the present material world, to the transcendent [eternal] world. And his lesson in our Mishna is also to teach one the path by which he can reach “Olam HaBah.”
(The language of our Mishnah is profound in its precision. The source of your eternity is when “the honor of your friend is as dear to you as your own.” If you recognize the special importance your friend has as one who embodies a reflection of the Divine — which is the source of eternity — then YOU also have it, validating your OWN eternity with a place in World to Come.)
Then Rebbe Eliezer taught “and don’t anger easily.” Just as he taught about the path one should follow to move in the direction of “Olam HaBah,” he is also cautioning man against following a path that will deprive him of “Olam HaBah.”
Anger leads a person to sin, destructive acts which eventually cause him to lose his place in “Olam HaBah.” (The connection between anger and sin is alluded to in a number of places in the writings of the Maharal. One of the understandings is that the source of anger is rooted in the ego, the insecure material dimension of the human being. It is this insecurity which seeks an illusionary feeling of stability and control, which manifests itself in anger when its expectations are not met; as well as through acts of sin, which is a further indication of man’s failure at self-control, demonstrated first and foremost by his anger. The egocentric energy that serves as the breeding ground for anger leads man to feel that his actions can be determined by what HE wants to do, WHEN he wants to do it. THIS is exactly the attitude which leads to sin and destructive acts.)
So, the first lesson of Rebbe Eliezer was that the honor of one’s friend should be as dear to you as your own, which is the path to the eternal World to Come, as he taught in Tractate Berachoth. Then he cautioned against what prevents one from acquiring a place in the eternal World to Come, by teaching that one should not allow oneself to anger easily, which is the greatest cause of sin.
Finally, we are taught to repent one day before death. If you sin — and “there is no righteous person on earth who does good and doesn’t sin (Koheleth 7:20)” — you must take care to repent on a daily basis, ensuring your complete place in “Olam HaBah.”
Why weren’t all three of these lessons taught to his students in the incident in Tractate Berachoth? Their question was limited to the path they should follow to enter “Olam HaBah.” As such, he responded only with the action they needed to take which would lead them along that path. But here, Rebbe Eliezer is teaching (as do the other Tana’im) three lessons to perfect man in all the dimensions connected with the goal of reaching Olam HaBah, both following the path leading to it, and not doing things that will deprive him of it.
(The Maharal will now connect the three lessons with the three dimensions of the human being that we discussed at the end of the last shiur.)
The lesson of being careful about the honor of others relates to the honor due the human being himself and what he represents. If one fails to give the honor due to the human being, it diminishes the uniquely human dimension of man, which is rooted in his Divine element. If he doesn’t accord it to others, it reflects a deficiency in the total perfection of the human being. This lesson is teaching man to perfect the uniquely human dimension, which embodies a Divine and eternal element.
Then Rebbe Eliezer teaches not to anger easily, which relates to the “kochoth hanefesh” (the spiritual/emotional force of the human being), which is the source of anger. One who is quick to anger is deficient in his “nefesh.”
Finally, there is a lesson directed towards the material dimension the human being — repent one day before you die. It is only because man is a physical being that there is a possibility of change and repentance. (It is the physical dimension which is a constant state of change and transformation. It is this instability and insecurity which causes man to sin. But it is also the reality which enables man to change. If man would be a purely spiritual reality, whatever level of free will that would exist would lead to immutable choices. Once made, they could not be modified.)
This is the underlying meaning of the lesson that we will learn (Ch. 4, Mishna 22) “An hour of repentance and good deeds in this world (are superior to all of the next world)” as will explained there. (The superiority is in the ability to always change and improve the situation. Once we have left the physical world, things are “frozen” in place.)
So Rebbe Eliezer has taught three lessons to bring man closer to perfection in each of three dimensions.
Understand what we have taught here, for they are the words of truth taught by the Rabbis, not simply an opinion based on conjecture. However, it is not possible to elaborate to the full depth of the lessons. Rather, a wise person will hear what is being taught, and he will himself develop further wisdom and understanding.
(As we have written before, this is the Maharal’s indication that the things presented are much deeper than they appear on the surface, and require extensive additional teaching and thought before they are fully comprehended.)