They [each] said three things. Rebbe Eliezer says: The honor of your friend should be as beloved to you as your own honor, and don’t anger easily, and repent one day before your death, and warm yourself from the fire of the “chachaim” (wise men), but be careful about being burned by their embers, for their bite is [like] the bite of fox, and their sting is [like] the sting of a scorpion, and their whisper is like that of a serpent. And all their words are like fiery coals.
Why did each of these tannaim choose to teach three things, no more and no less? (We have seen this type of question frequently in the Maharal. It is built on the perspective that the lessons of our Rabbis don’t “just happen to be” in a certain way. Every aspect is intentional, and with meaning.) Furthermore, Rebbe Eliezer taught many more than three things! Another problem is that there is no connection between the various things taught by Rebbe Eliezer! What does the warning not to anger easily have to do with repentance the day before you die.?! And how do either of those relate to taking care about being burned by the words of wise men? (The connection between elements in a Mishna is another type of problem the Maharal raises frequently. It played a major role in his understanding of many of the Mishnayoth of the first chapter.) Finally, why the lengthy and seemingly repetitious description of the power and danger of the “fire” of the chachamim?
Each of the tanaim chose to teach three things to ensure that, as words of discipline (mussar) they would remain etched on one’s heart and in one’s mind. Three things are remembered clearly, while more than that can lead to part of the lesson being forgotten. The Rabbis admonished (Pesachim 3a) “A person should always teach his students in a concise way.” It is for this reason that you find most of the lessons of discipline in this tractate in groups of three.
A group of three also has the property of enabling each element of the trio to have a fundamental connection to the other two, such that any one element has the ability of reminding you of the other two. When the group has many elements, the connection between them is much less identifiable, and they are not as easily remembered.
It is for these reasons that each Tanna taught three lessons of mussar, where all three have a common underlying principle.
(The above lines of the Maharal have alluded to an important principle that he presents in much more depth in many other places. The number three includes elements at the two extremes, as well the element of balance which is between the two extremes. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. So one element has the ability to generate the second element, with the two together generating the third element. We have explained the concept of “three” in quite a bit of detail in the early shiurim. Refer back to our explanation of the Maharal’s introduction to Derech Chaim, as well as Chapter One, Mishna 1, Pt. 3 and Mishna 2, Pt. 4. For those of you who weren’t with us that far back — nearly three years! — they are available archived through the Project Genesis Home Page, www.torah.org.)
We explained in our introduction to this masechet that a person must attain perfection in three areas: perfection in relation to G-d, perfection in relation to other people, and perfection in relation to himself and his own potential. This was our way of explaining the three opinions (Bava Kama 30a) of what one needs to perfect in order for one to attain the level of “chasid,” of piety and saintliness.
Rebbe Eliezer began with “The honor of your friend should be as beloved to you as your own,” for one who has acquired this character trait has perfected himself in relation to others. [The lesson we will be learning (Ch. 4, Mishna 13) "The honor of your student should be as beloved to you as your own, and the honor of your friend as the fear of your teacher,” which appears to differ from our Mishna, is not a contradiction. That Mishna is referring to "friends” — colleagues– in Torah. Our Mishna refers to the common understanding of friends.]
To embody perfection in relation to one’s own self, in order that he should have no lack in his human essence, we are taught “Don’t anger easily” for anger is evil and destructive to the essence of the human being. The following sources for this idea are taught in tractate Nedarim (22a).
“Rebbe Yochanan said: One who gets angry is subjected to the control of many forms of ‘gehinom’ as it is written (Koheleth 11:10) ‘Remove anger from your heart, and displace evil (“rah”) from your flesh.’ (Removing the emotional response of anger is considered beneficial to the physical dimension of the human being.) ‘Rah’ always refers to Gehinom, as it is written (Mishlei 16:4) ‘…And also a “rasha” (a wicked person) for the day of evil (referring to gehinom)’. ”
(Rebbe Yochanan is showing through the transitive principle that anger leads to “gehinom” — a void in one’s existence. “Rah” — evil — refers to gehinom. One who removes anger has displaced “rah,” which means that one who embodies anger has “rah” as a part of him. Since “rah” has been shown to be “gehinom,” one who becomes angry is subjected to gehinom — a void in the actuality of one’s very being.)
It is further taught there (Nedarim 22b): Raba bar Rav Huna said “For a person who angers, even the ‘shechina’ (the Divine Presence) has no significance, as it is written (Tehillim 10:14) ‘A wicked person, due to his anger, will not seek out [G-d[G-d]s thoughts are that there is no G-d.'” Rebbe Yirmiyah says: “[A p[A person who angers]n forgets what he learned and multiplies his foolishness, as it is written (Koheleth 7:9) ‘For anger resides in the lap of fools’ and it is written (Mishlei 13:16) ‘…and a fool spreads out a net of inanity’.” …Rav Nachman said: “It is known that his sins are numerous, as it is written (Mishlei 29:22) ‘ And one who possesses anger has many sins’.”
There can be no greater deficiency in the essence of the human being than forgetting what one has learned, increasing one’s foolishness, and the other results listed above.
(Our Rabbis are teaching us that anger impacts negatively on one’s understanding and intelligence. It clouds are thinking, not just in the short run, while we are angry, but in fact effects our entire thought processes in the long run. With diminished intelligence and thinking ability, we have moved one notch further from being refined human beings and one notch closer to the animal world.
(Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, used to point out that these negative results of anger weren’t PUNISHMENTS from G-d for getting angry. They were NATURAL CONSEQUENCES of the effect of anger on the human being. Therefore, even if the anger was justified, it was still very detrimental to the human being. Fire burns you even if it was necessary and justified to put your hand in it. Anger works on the intellectual dimension of the human being with the same mechanism. See Bamidbar 31:21, and Rashi on the pasuk. “Since Moshe got angry, he erred, forgetting the laws of forbidden vessels.” Yet his anger was justified.)