Blogging Avot: Bad Neighbors

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Pirkei Avot 1:7 is a short mishnah with further advice about who to (and in this case, who not to) associate with.

“Nittai the Arbelite said: Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not befriend the wicked; and do not abandon belief in retribution.”

The first two warnings here seem similar. Why could the mishnah not just have stated “Stay away from bad people”?

Perhaps because that’s not the message of the mishnah. A close reading suggests that at times it may be okay to be around “wicked” (whatever that may mean) people. The conditions:

(1) One should not put oneself in a situation where one is constantly around them. (This is the warning about having neighbors who are bad influences.)

(2) One translation I saw renders the second clause in the mishnah: “do not associate with the wicked.” But this is misleading. The Hebrew tithaver, uses the root for “friend.” Perhaps it’s okay to associate with “bad” people, particularly to be a good influence on them, but it is never appropriate to consider such a person a friend.

The final part of the mishnah is translated in several ways. One translation has “do not despair about affliction.” But I prefer the one above: “do not abandon belief about retribution.”

This, it seems, is a critical part of acting correctly, according Nittai. He is reminding us to be good and avoid evil even when it seems that those who do act inappropriately are not punished. Because they will eventually be punished.

While I understand Nittai’s point, it may be philosophically problematic. Is morality truly bound up with the notion of reward and punishment?

In other words, must there be eventual punishment for the wicked if morality is to be meaningful? Or can an act be wrong even if it will go unpunished?

Posted on May 2, 2008

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