It’s not necessarily what you think it is.
2.13 He posed this question to his disciples:
Look about you and tell me, which is the way in life to which one should cleave?
Rabbi Eliezer said: a generous eye;
Rabbi Yehoshua said: a good colleague;
Rabbi Yose said: a good neighbor;
Rabbi Shimon said: foresight;
Rabbi Elazar said: a generous heart.
Said he to them:
I prefer the answer of Elazar ben Arakh, for his view includes all of yours.
I love reading the Hebrew when I can understand it, and since I’ve begun studying my modern Hebrew textbook again, I’m beginning to understand it a little bit better, too, which is always a good thing. Granted, most of the Pirkei Avot is written in Biblical Hebrew (or Aramaic on occasion, if I’m not mistaken), so there are bound to be slight differences in how I interpret the words, given a few centuries’ worth of language progression. It’s a slight fault, I’ll admit, but it makes it no less fun or educational, does it?
Rabbi Eliezer speaks literally of “good eyes.” What does that imply? Strong sight, the ability to see at far distances, x-ray vision? I like the definition they’ve given us, however, that this goodness isn’t inherent in anatomy, but in the way we use our eyes to see: the things we notice, the faces we pick from the crowd.
What does it mean to have generous eyes? I think it means that when we see an opportunity to give, we act on it; we aren’t ignorant to these occasions, we don’t “turn a blind eye” when someone’s in need. We see. We act.
“A good colleague” can be directly translated (that is, directly translated with an eye for Modern Hebrew) as “a good friend.” Rabbi Yehoshua, that proud man who acts for the sake of the reward, knows still the importance of being in good company. True, good colleagues can help bolster one’s own work and encourage one to attain greater degrees of greatness (something I can’t say I wouldn’t imagine Yehoshua doing), but perhaps there’s more to him than that which a single characterization might imply.
The value of a good friend can be a great aid to anyone–and if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ll know how much I appreciate and value my closest friends. There’s a connection with a good friend that’s at once deeper than family and just as close, a connection both unique and profound and unlike any other connection possible. To cleave one’s life to a good friend is a gift not only for oneself, but for your friend as well.
Rabbi Yose, however, believes a good neighbor is more important than a good friend. Certainly, being a good neighbor to those around you will make for great relationships and a lovely living environment (a perspective I failed to realize a moment ago, that “a good friend” could speak just as much of ourselves as it does of others), but the greatness doesn’t have to end there. If we extend this awareness into today’s world, where one has good neighbors, one lives in a good neighborhood, and where there’s a good neighborhood, there’s a strong community. Ah, community! We have been taught so much of that, haven’t we? And for good reason. A community creates a family around an individual, a structure of support and friendship for everyone involved. A glorious thing indeed.
I would not think anything less than foresight for that way of life our fearful Rabbi Shimon would cling to. Then again, there is a footnote here, saying that “foresight” literally translates to “one who sees the consequence of his deeds,” but here my Hebrew is not strong enough to lend me any personal insight of my own. Regardless, doesn’t this description seem even more indicative of the character we’ve been building of Rabbi Shimon? He acts to avoid an unfavorable consequence, so naturally knowing what our actions will lead to is a trait he would cleave to!
Not, of course, that it doesn’t have its own merits, too. We should watch what we say, lest we hurt someone more deeply than either knives or swords could. We should watch where we walk, lest we trip or bump into someone else. We should watch the weather before jumping into a swimming pool, watch for oncoming traffic before driving after a red light turns green, watch for opportunities that arise unexpectedly and need swift action for greater results.
Foresight is a rather succinct way of saying it, isn’t it? And it is useful.
Then there’s that great Rabbi Elazar, who simply says “a good heart.” I can imagine, although we would all wish for this as well, that by a good heart he doesn’t merely mean a healthy one, but a heart that reaches out toward others and cares for them as he would care for himself. But how, we wonder, does this incorporate all the others?
A mathematical way of seeing this would be to say that the set of a good heart is a set containing all the elements of the sets aforesaid, that this one cluster of attributes includes those attributes already known. But since this isn’t math, a broader, yet more particular explanation is in order.
A good heart possesses good eyes for a good heart would not look away when another is in need. A good heart leads one to becoming both a good friend and a good neighbor to others. And lastly, a good heart will want to know what its actions will lead to, for a good heart would not want to bring harm to others but only bring more goodness to the world.
It is true, then, a good heart does include the others’ paths.
This has all been good and fun, I assure you, but what does it mean to us now? It means that, as we strive to be better people (for what’s life if we stop striving to become better people, now matter how a good a person we already are?), we should strive always to posses a good heart.
We should not turn our eyes from those in need.
We should be a good friend and be good to our friends.
We should be good neighbors no matter who we live with.
We should think carefully about our actions before acting.
And when we can do each of these, we too will have a heart as generous as Rabbi Elazar’s, a heart so great it brings within it the love that everyone desires.