Blogging Avot: Friends & Teachers

Pirkei Avot 1:6 continues the conversation about social ethics, which began in Mishnah 4.

1:6 – Joshua ben Perachyah and Nittai the Arbelite received [the Torah] from them. Joshua ben Perachyah said: Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.

The final part of the mishnah is basically just a good, solid piece of musar. Joshua ben Perachyah is advising us to assume the best about people. (For example, if your brother forgets to call you on your birthday, assume it was because he was uncomfortably busy, instead of assuming it’s because he’s incorrigibly selfish.)

The first teaching in the mishnah has more nuance. For one, by expressing the value of having a teacher and friend, Joshua ben Perachyah is asserting the value of having a social life. No man (or woman) should be an island. Relationships are important — and not just with family.

This may seem obvious, but it shouldn’t be. It can be read as a rejection of the monastic life, a value in many other religions.

Even more interesting are some of the specific words chosen by Joshua. Aseh licha rav, translated here as “Provide for yourself” a teacher, literally means “make for yourself a teacher.” And the “knei” in Knei licha haver, translated here as “get yourself a friend,” literally means acquire and usually connotes a business transaction.

Perhaps the distinction between the language used for teacher and friend has to do with the dynamics of these relationships. In a transaction, items are exchanged, each party is enriched in one way or another. Perhaps Joshua is noting that friendships are fundamentally reciprocal; student-Teacher relationships could be, but they aren’t necessarily so.

That being said, it’s interesting that Joshua advises us to appoint our own teachers. He very well could have suggested that we merely accept as our teacher whoever the rabbis of the time consider to be appropriate.

In the asymmetrical Student-Teacher relationship, the Teacher is the one empowered to give/provide/speak, but the Teacher can only do these things if the Student chooses to give him/her the power to do so.

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