Thursday, May 27, 2010

Avot - Chapter 4 (Aggadah)

Mishnah 1

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man…. Who is brave? He who conquers his own urges. … Who is wealthy? He who rejoices in his portion….. Who is honored? He who honors others.

This chapter consists primarily of sayings of the tannaim from the generation of Yavneh and the Hadrianic persecution that followed, including both those who died a martyr’s death during that period, and those who survived and helped to establish the new, alternative center of Torah in the Galilee thereafter.

In this mishnah, I have omitted the proof texts, preferring to concentrate on the message of the mishnah per se. This mishnah might be compared to a Zen koan: that is, a brief epigram (or, in this case, four short epigrams on one theme) whose purpose is to upset preconceived, conventional notions—in this case, as to what it means to be an outstanding person. The wealthy man is not the millionaire, but the one who knows how to accept life, whether he has much or little. The wise man is not the erudite expert, but the person who knows the limits of his own knowledge, and that, even though he may be expert in a given field, he has much to learn from other people. (This is perhaps the distinction between knowledge or, as we would say, information, and real wisdom.) The hero is not only one who can withstand external threats, but who is master over his own inner desires, which may be chaotic or egotistical. (Whenever I read this I think of Natan Sharansky, surely a paradigm of modern Jewish heroism, who after bravely withstanding the crushing force of the Soviet regime, confronted the totally different test of involvement in the quagmire of Israeli political life. I think he acquitted himself not badly.) There is a saying—I’ve heard it used in Jewish Musar sources, and that it originates in Islamic sources—that soldiers returning from the front are told “You have won the small battle; now you must face the great battle!” That just about sums it up.

Mishnah 23: Some Practical Human Advice

Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar said: Do not attempt to pacify your fellow at the time of his anger; and do not comfort him when his dead is lying before him; and do not ask him at the time of his vow; and do not attempt to see him in the hour of his shame.

This mishnah gives several pieces of practical human advice, which boil down to one central idea: that human beings, even the best of them, are not always rational beings, and that there are times of intense emotion when appeals to reason, to common sense or to enlightened self-interest, will not and cannot be heard. As the best speakers, comedians and actors say: “It’s all a matter of timing.” So: don’t speak to a person, even a good friend, in the wrong way at the wrong time—or perhaps one should say, not even in the right way, with words of sense and caution and wisdom, at a time that is inappropriate.

There are certain streams within Judaism that advocate a kind of religious perfectionism, that expect a person to be master at all times, not only of his behavior, and not only of his speech, but also of his emotions. Thus, in his essay Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik celebrates certain models of heroic, almost inhuman, halakhic self-discipline. (One could argue that the tenth commandment, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house/wife/livestock…” assumes that a person is capable of such self-mastery that he will not even covet another person’s possession or situation in his heart. Other mefarshim, to my mind wisely, interpret this commandment as restricted to covetous action.) In any event, the present mishnah assumes the opposite: that people are subject to moods, are deeply affected by circumstances, and that certain events are so traumatic and powerful that they cannot even speak of them rationally during a certain initial period.

As Rambam and others counsel us, a person ought to avoid anger. But given the fact that the vast majority of people do feel anger towards their fellows at one time or another, often intensely so, it is not prudent or useful to attempt to calm someone in such cases. In like manner, comforting the bereaved is a great mitzvah, but there is a time and place for it: in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one (perhaps even if long expected), a person needs to grieve, to weep, even to shout and cry out and shake his fist at heaven if he is so inclined; the time for comforting only comes later. Vows, too, may be made for foolish reasons, and may create difficulties in life and be hard to sustain. But when a person does make a vow (and in the milieu of traditional Jewish society it was perhaps more commonplace than among Westernized people), it is doubtless in response to some deeply felt emotion or need. Perhaps one feels anger at a particular individual (“I swear that he shall never again darken my doorstep so long as I live!”); of gratitude to God (as in Jephtah’s famously foolish oath; see Judges 11:30-40); or by religious zeal and the desire to achieve greater holiness (the Nazirite vow; vows not to eat meat or various other forms of asceticism). In any event, at the moment of the vow, all appeals to reason are in vain. Finally, when a person has done something awful and his reputation is in shambles, and he is too ashamed to show his face in public, even his best friend should avoid forcing himself on him.

But all these things, it seems to me, are general directives. If a person is truly an intimate friend, and knows that even in these extreme circumstances his presence will be not only accepted, but also desired, then he should rely on his human judgment. It seems to me that this matter is analogous to the rule that one should not remind a righteous proselyte of his non-Jewish origins; like taunting a ba’al teshuvah about his past sins, this falls under the rubric of ona’at devraim, causing a person suffering by one’s cruel or thoughtless words (Bava Metzia’a 59b ff.). But if one has a close friendship with a convert (and I have been privileged to have or to have had several such during the course of my life), and that person openly talks about his/her background, and the whole tenor of the conversation is friendly and personal, it seems clear that such talk is permitted. The whole idea of the issur is not to hurt another person’s feelings, to sensitize us to other people; not merely as an arbitrary rule to be followed blindly regardless of context. In inter-human relations, the basic idea is common sense and wisdom—what is sometimes called “the fifth section of Shulhan Arukh.”


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