Sunday, November 27, 2022

Avot 1:10--Love Work, Shun Power

Avot 1:10Sh’mayah says: Love work, despise positions of authority, and do not become overly comfortable with the authorities.

What is the relationship between Sh’mayah’s first statement—love work—and his subsequent warnings against cozying up to wealth and power?

Perhaps he was concerned about sycophancy as a cheap and misguided shortcut to what is conventionally seen as success.  It is all too easy to turn to money and influence as a substitute for meaningful work.  To follow that path is to lose one’s moral compass—as so many seeking to gain or maintain political leadership have sadly done in recent years.

Sh’mayah’s juxtaposition serves to clarify the true purpose of work—m’lachah—which is to repair a reasonable portion of the world’s brokenness. We obviously need to earn sufficiently to put bread on our tables, but integrity demands that in one way or another, our endeavors bring more healing than hurt.  If we find ourselves focused on the accumulation of capital and influence for selfish purposes, it is time to reconsider our path.  With some significant exceptions, the wealthy and powerful are heavily vested in maintaining the status quo, because that’s what helped enable their prosperity and prestige.  If we are committed to doing our part in changing the world for the better, it is generally advisable to not get too comfortable with the individuals and institutions that have the most to gain by keeping things as they currently are.  Holy labor is that which recognizes the world as it is, but never stops striving toward the vision of what it should be.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Avot 1:7--Avoiding Bad Influences and Virtue As Its Own Reward

Matai of Arbel says: “Distance yourself from a bad neighbor; do not associate with a wicked person; and do not despair of retribution.

In last week’s mishnah, Yehoshua ben P’rachyah taught the importance of drawing close to people to forge friendships and learning relationships.  This week’s passage, by contrast, teaches that there are times when we are obligated to distance ourselves from others. 

Matai of Arbel recognizes the significance of negative peer pressure, which affects us all.  If we associate with unethical people, we are far more likely to act unethically ourselves.  While we can’t always separate ourselves from bad influences—sometimes they are our bosses, co-workers, and even family members—we can minimize the time we spend with them.

But what is the relationship between this warning and the last part of Matai’s teaching: “Do not despair of retribution?”  In his social justice commentary on Avot, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes: Some fear that they will miss out if they don’t join the liars and cheaters who seem to be winning.  The mishnah reminds us that the honest and faithful will win, both in this world and in the world-to-come.

I’m skeptical of this, at least at face value.  I am completely agnostic about the existence of a world to come, and the premise that the honest and faithful will necessarily win in this world seems dubious at best.  I believe life is all too often unfair; as quite a few of the Rabbis recognize, sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.  While a part of us wishes that everyone would ultimately get their just desserts—which is to say proper retribution—when it comes to material benefits, it just isn’t so.

Still, virtue can be its own reward.  By associating with good companions and shunning bad influences, we are far more likely to do the right thing in our lives—and the satisfaction of making the world a little better for our having been here often must suffice.  It may not make us rich or popular or powerful, but when we choose to associate with ethical people, we at least have the satisfaction of knowing we are doing our best to live up to God’s calling to be holy, honoring the Divine Image in which we are created.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Judge Others Favorably (E-Torah November 13; Avot 1:6)

For this year’s e-Torah, I will be featuring passages from the Talmudic tractate Avot, a compilation of the ethical, spiritual, and political teachings of second-century Rabbis.  I’ll be approaching this venerable text through the lens of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.

Avot 1:6—Yehoshua ben P’rachyah says: Get yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably (i.e. with the presumption of innocence).

Given the importance our tradition assigns to learning and community, the first two parts of this passage are not surprising.  In order to grow in wisdom, we need good teachers; solid friendships are the foundation of sustainable, caring community.  But what is the relationship between these teachings and the last one, enjoining that we assess others with the benefit of the doubt?

The Italian Renaissance commentator Ovadiah Sforno writes: “Judge everyone fairly—because without this trait friendship will not endure.  For the majority of statements, the listener can judge a speaker in a negative light.  And this attitude will unquestionably annul all friendship.”

In other words, friendship depends upon trust.  If we go through life assuming bad intentions on the part of others, we cannot maintain friendships.  To be a friend is to have someone’s back, and know that they have ours.  

It is much the same in the teacher-student relationship.  The learner must trust that the teacher is wise, honest, and has her or his best interests at heart.  And so it is in almost all significant relationships—if we approach the other with guarded suspicion, things will not end well.  

We need not agree with one another. Students can grow by challenging their teachers; friends can and should offer loving criticism when it is merited; and Torah defines the role of our partners as ezer k’negdo—those who help us through life by guiding us toward new ways of thinking.  

Disagreement is very Jewish—but only when it is accompanied by genuine trust.  To judge others favorably—and know that they are affording us that same privilege—is to pave the way toward the kind of vulnerability that undergirds all deep reciprocal relationships, between teachers and students, friends and lovers, and sustaining members of compassionate Jewish communities.