Rabbis Versus Friends
Chapter 1, Mishna 6(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Yehoshua ben (son of) Perachia and Nittai of Arbel received the transmission from them [the rabbis of Mishna 4]. Yehoshua ben Perachia said: Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably."
This mishna brings us to the next generation of scholars and the advice they offered to their and future generations. We are still in one of the earliest generations of the Mishna.
Yehoshua first advises us that we "make" for ourselves a rabbi. We discussed recently (Mishna 4) the role of the Torah scholar within Judaism. As we saw, a rabbi is hardly a religious functionary, conducting services at a synagogue, wedding or funeral, nor is he simply one who is asked to decide matters of Jewish law. A true rabbi is firstly one who serves as a role model for his community, who not only teaches G-d's Torah, but who lives and exemplifies those same values as well.
Second, the true Torah scholar is one who is imbued with the entire gamut of Torah knowledge -- and thus, he is the only one truly able to take that wisdom and apply it to real life situations. Life is far more complicated than ritual and religious ceremony. We are constantly faced with challenges -- struggling with our own natures and in our relationships with others. Many of the decisions we must make during our days and in the course of our lives are in reality religious by nature. Take for example our professional lives. How does the lawyer defend a client he knows to be guilty as sin? How does the psychologist deal with a patient who may be a danger to his family or to society? Say a patient (or close friend) confesses to having committed a serious crime or having a drug addiction? Is one obligated to turn him in, or does true friendship imply confidentiality? When may a doctor provide experimental or alternative treatment to his patient? Say an acquaintance calls during off hours for medical treatment or advice. Does the Torah obligate one with the appropriate know-how to help? How much of my employer's time (or paper) may I waste assuming it's understood (I hope none of you are reading this on work time...) -- or because everyone else does it? How do I deal with employees (possibly myself) who are in the habit of talking behind the boss's back? How much of my earnings must I give to charity -- and to which types of charities? How do I balance my career with family obligations, with Torah study, and with community involvement? And how should I *act*? How friendly and outgoing should I be to others? How much effort should I put in to mending a strained relationship, and when is it time to walk away? What is the proper manner of disciplining my children? How do I draw the line between parenting and butting in? How much respect should I demand of my children? Should I interfere with their every bad practice and association, or should I let them learn life experiences on their own? And how should I get along with my own parents -- possibly whose religious values differ greatly from my own? And am I obligated in their healthcare?
The questions are endless and ongoing -- and they are really what religion is all about. Far beyond what color yarmulke a person wears, these are the issues which truly define if we are Torah-observant and G-d-fearing Jews. And for such issues Israel needs rabbis. Virtually none of the questions above can be answered with a single verse or law in the Talmud. Our Sages had much to say about all such issues. There are priorities and considerations which must be carefully weighed and balanced. And the answers may very well not be the same for any two people.
As a simple example, the Sages had much to say about the importance of Torah study, of child rearing, of community service, and of earning a livelihood. Which are given greater priority? How much time should I spend on each? It really depends who I am, what the Torah's priorities are, and how the Torah's eternal truths apply to me and my situation in particular. And only one who knows the entire Torah can decipher which of its many truths apply in any given situation. It's easy enough for me to tell my wife, "Sorry, honey, can't help with the dishes; the Rabbis say Torah study is important." (I've tried that one before, and it don't work too well...) But helping others -- certainly one's own wife -- is also an obligation. Which comes first? What is the proper balance?
Thus again, Israel need rabbis. The balancing act of life -- how to balance the different values and priorities of the Torah and of life -- is the real trick to life and personal fulfillment. And only the scholar who knows both the Torah's wisdom and me personally will be able to assist me. He will see my own unique qualities and attributes -- often better than I see them myself -- and determine how the Torah's eternal values apply to me personally. And if he knows me -- if I've "made" for myself a rabbi -- then I have some hope of striking that proper balance.
Our mishna additionally tells us to "acquire for yourself a friend." This connects closely to Yehoshua's first statement of making for myself a rabbi. We are dealing firstly with a friend in the spiritual sense -- one who assists me in my religious and personal growth. True friends are those who grow together, who share their feelings, and who grow as individuals. They are open and sincere with one another, and are practically the only ones who can (perhaps) give advice and criticism freely and openly. King Solomon wrote: "Faithful are the chastisements of a friend, while burdensome are the kisses of an enemy" (Proverbs 27:6). A friend is one from whom I grow, and who will point out to me my faults (often indiscernible to myself) and instruct me in how to realize my potential.
It's interesting to note that the mishna uses a stronger word for friend than it did for rabbi. We were instructed to "make" ("asai") for ourselves a rabbi and to "buy" ("k'nai") ourselves a friend. The implication is that more effort must be expended in acquiring a friend. Why is this?
I believe there are two issues here. First, in spite of everything we've said about the importance of rabbis, they only go so far. We have all heard or read flowery and inspiring words (or e-mails) from rabbis and felt the gut reaction, whether expressed or not, something like: "You know, that's really easy to say on an abstract level. It would be nice if life were so easy. If I were 30 years older and a well-respected rabbi I could also get away with proudly espousing such high and uncompromising standards. But the reality is just not that way."
One's rabbi is usually somewhat older and more established than he. Everything he says is wonderful and inspiring -- he makes it all sound so easy. But he doesn't *really* know what it's like to come from where I come from, and how difficult it would be to break away from parents, friends, culture, habits and everything else I would have to leave behind.
And this is where friends come in. A friend is an equal; he speaks your language. He may even share your background and history. He knows where you're coming from because he's been there himself. And he might just help you figure out how *you* can apply truth to your life, and how it can all become meaningful and relevant to you.
There is a second, unrelated concept behind the idea of acquiring a friend. We don't just "make" friends for ourselves; we must invest in and "acquire" them. Friendships are two-way affairs. A relationship with a rabbi or teacher, as valuable as it may be, is basically passive. Although questioning and objecting are very much a part of the student's role (as we'll learn later, "The bashful student will not learn" (2:6), for the most part the student is enjoined to assume a humble, submissive role -- as we saw recently in Mishna 4, "Cleave to the dust of their feet."
Developing friendships, however, requires a much greater investment of time and effort. We "purchase" friendships by our willingness to share our feelings, stay up late discussing our problems, and be available to help him get through his difficult times. The investment may be great, and we may not "learn" as much as we do from our teachers. But relationships are yet another necessary ingredient towards developing ourselves as human beings and fulfilling our missions on this earth.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.