Provide Yourself With a Teacher…

This is from an email by Keren Hannah Pryor regarding our study of Pirkei Avot, an ancient Jewish book of ethics and wisdom. I love our study of this book!

Avot 1:6  Yehoshua ben Perach’yah and Nittai the Arbelite received the tradition from them. Yehoshua ben Perachyah says: Provide yourself with a teacher; get yourself a friend, and judge all men favorably.

Yehoshua ben Perach’yah [lit. Flower of God] and Nittai the Arbelite received the tradition from them.

This next pair of the Second Century BCE zugot were students of Yossei ben Yo’ezer and Yossei of Jerusalem and they took over the positions of Nasi and Av Beit Din from them. We are told that Nittai was from Arbel, a town in the Lower Galilee north of Tiberias, which is referred to by the prophet Hosea as Beit Arbel. [1]

Provide yourself with a teacher…

Three points are emphasized by Yehoshua ben Perach’yah, which we may assume are each related to the study of Torah. The study of God’s Word is considered a sacred act in the service of God. It should, therefore, be approached with a sense of duty – deliberately, consistently and systematically.

The counsel shared here indicates that the onus is upon oneself to ensure that one finds a teacher that is suited to the area and level of study that one needs at any particular stage of one’s study and learning. The teaching that will benefit yourself will be that which, while challenging your thinking, also comfortably draws response from yourself.

In our day, the Internet has opened endless opportunities for learning and the choices can be overwhelming. Directionless study leads to confusion rather than clarity of understanding. As a result, one could avoid study of the Word altogether and one’s spirit would suffer the consequent lack of nourishment and growth. More than ever, we need to trust in the guidance of the Lord for discernment as to what course of study to pursue at any particular time. Once found, we need to apply ourselves and to see it through to the best of our ability, knowing that He will reward our diligence and service to Him.

When study is undertaken in service and worship of God, we can trust that God Himself will direct us in our pursuits by His Spirit. The Scriptures reassure us that this is indeed the case, as in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in YHWH with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.”  King David beautifully expresses his confidence in the faithfulness of God to teach him and to lead him in wisdom and truth: “Guide me in Thy truth, and teach me; For Thou art the God of my salvation… Good and upright is YHWH: Therefore will He instruct sinners in the way. The meek will He guide in justice; and the meek will He teach His way” (Psalm 25:5, 8, 9). Also, in Psalm 73:24, “Thou wilt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.”

Yeshua, when teaching his disciples in preparation for his approaching death, assures them: “ When he, the Spirit of truth is come, he shall guide you into all truth…” (John 16:13). We, too, can place our full trust in the Shepherd of our souls, now seated at the right hand of the Throne of Grace, knowing that He will guide us safely in the power of the Spirit of holiness and truth that, through His gift of grace, dwells within us.

The Hebrew word translated as ‘provide’ in Avot 1:6 is osseh, which generally means ‘make’. We can therefore also read this phrase as, “Make of yourself a teacher.” As we saw in Avot 1:1 with, “Raise up many disciples”, the Sages considered it a great mitzvah (good deed) to pass on the teachings of God that one learns to other disciples. Yeshua himself exhorted his disciples, “Go… and make disciples of all nations…. teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). The Greek verb ‘go’ better translates as ‘in your going’ or as you go. As you learn and grow and go forward, trust the Lord to open doors and provide opportunities, each as unique as one’s own particular circumstance, to share the knowledge that is imparted to you of the character and the ways of God. We can do this with the assurance that he is with us and enabling us, as Yeshua promised, “I am with you always, [even] to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Indeed, we read in the inspiring record of the subsequent acts of the first disciples that “…the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples (talmidim – students) multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly” (Acts 6:7).

…get yourself a friend 

In Hebraic tradition, both a spiritual teacher and a friend, or companion in study, are considered the highest level of relationship apart from one’s spouse and family. The number of teachers and close friends one will acquire through one’s life is necessarily small and each one is therefore valued and cherished. Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated ‘get’ in this phrase is kaneh, which also means ‘buy’. One cannot literally buy a true friend; however, to build a strong friendship carries a cost in the amount of care, commitment and communication one invests. It’s a give-and-take relationship. In the context of Avot, and Torah study in general, the closest friend one can find is a study partner. The best way to learn is to share ideas, to agree and disagree, to help and encourage one another in learning and in growing “for the sake of Heaven.”

[I will insert here that I love my study friend. She makes learning Hebrew fun. In our learning and chatting together, we learn from each other and we encourage each other. She’s a blessing to me.]

…and judge all men favorably.

No matter how important it is to have teachers and friends who can teach and advise us, this last phrase reminds us that the ultimate responsibility lies withus as we aim to make the most wise and correct judgments in the daily issues we are faced with. More often than not, those decisions involve other people.

The most common symbol for judgment is a pair of scales. In particular cases, the weight of evidence may clearly prove a person’s guilt. However, in our general dealings with others the scales are balanced, as it were; we do not know all the evidence to be had. Only God knows the heart and sees the full picture of any person’s life. We, therefore, are exhorted to judge others in a favorable light; to give the benefit of the doubt in lovingkindness.

Offering an interesting perspective, Rabbi Twerski refers to the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760; the founder of the Hassidic movement in Eastern Europe) who said that the world around us is like a mirror and “…inasmuch as we are unlikely to recognize our character defects, God allows us to see them in others. When we see faults in others, we should be aware that it’s our own reflection that we see, and that those defects are really our own.” [2] Whatever really irks us in others is the very thing that reminds us of a similar weakness in ourselves. Once we are aware of this challenging reality, we can be encouraged to pray for understanding. When the Lord clearly convicts us, we can repent, receive forgiveness and grow stronger in that very area – for His greater glory.

Yeshua taught his disciples emphatically: “Judge not, that you be not judged.

For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged” (Matt. 7:1-2). We may make the application in this context: “Judge favorably, that you may be judged favorably!”  This principle also is strongly emphasized in Rabbinic literature as in, for example, “By the yardstick that a man uses to measure – by that will he himself be measured” (Mishna, Sotah 1:7).

Luke expands Yeshua’s teaching beautifully and connects judgment and forgiveness: “And judge not, and you shall not be judged; and condemn not, and you shall not be condemned; forgive, and you shall be forgiven” (6:37-38). Forgiveness implies judgment. When we judge that an action is wrong and has hurt us and had an adverse effect, it calls for either forgiveness or revenge. In this regard Yeshua also taught in the model Disciple’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12) or as David Stern simply translates: “Forgive us what we have done wrong, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us.” [3]

I recently read, as part of an anonymous quote worth consideration, that we should aim, in love, to “forgive without punishing.” This is particularly appropriate in response to true repentance, as we see in the case of the two men crucified alongside Yeshua. Both were sinners and yet he said to one, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This indicates that repentance draws forth forgiveness. What made a difference here was the state of the men’s hearts. When facing death, together with the one who was the bearer of eternal life, one heart changed, the other did not. At the same time, we see the greatest display of favorable judgment when Yeshua prayed for those who were crucifying him, “Father forgive them, for they do not understand what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).

The prophet Zechariah exhorts: Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another” (7:9). God’s heart of love always leans toward forgiveness, healing and redemption and his scales of judgment are tipped towards mercy rather than unyielding justice. In His love, may our hearts and lives reflect the same.

1. Hosea 10:14; Pirke Avot, Kravitz and Olitzky; 15

2. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 34

3. David H. Stern, Complete Jewish Bible; 1230

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