The seven-week countdown to the holiday of Shavuot, the day when the Torah was given, has concluded. As part of the preparatory process of character refinement during this period — and for some groups, throughout the summer — there is a custom to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) each Shabbat afternoon.
This unique part of the Mishna, rather than recording Torah laws, teaches wisdom relating to good habits, behaviors that make someone more sensitive and receptive to a Torah life. As the Talmud states: derech eretz (propriety and proper conduct) is a prerequisite to Torah.
In the first chapter (Mishna 6), there is a fundamental teaching addressing three essential ingredients for success: “Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Appoint for yourself a Rabbi (Rav), acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.”
At first glance, the first two instructions don’t seem to offer anything novel or profound. Everyone needs a friend, and a spiritual teacher is an obvious requirement for growth. Another puzzling feature is why different verbs are used to address these key relationships. Why not be consistent and use the same expression for both people: “Appoint yourself a friend and a mentor” or “acquire a mentor and a friend”?
To begin, the title rabbi in this context is not simply a pulpit rabbi or scholar. It refers to a mentor and guide, someone who is both learned and able to apply this knowledge to life. There may, for example, be many individuals who are filled with Torah knowledge, yet who lack the implementation and leadership qualities to serve as role models. Others may possess a refined character and the sincere desire to help but be missing the insight or moral principles to advise well.
So, the recommendation here, beyond finding someone to learn from, is to seek a rabbi who can provide a fresh outlook when critical moral decisions arise — such as marital struggles, parenting advice, business ethics, and other dilemmas we may face. At that point, we must know who to consult.
Action versus discretion
Examining the odd but precise Hebrew words — to “appoint” and “acquire” — in the respective directives, we can glean additional instructions about the nature of these two relationships.
“Appointing” is an act performed regardless of whether it feels natural or fits your personal taste. Along these lines, Maimonides explains that the Mishna’s use of “appointing a rabbi” is conveying that even if all-around you appear unworthy of the fulfilling this role, choosing someone — anyone — to impart Torah wisdom is still better than studying alone. The same applies to the decision to rely on one’s own moral intuition.
As simple as it sounds, knowing not to rely solely on one’s own judgment for important decisions — and when to ask advice — often entails internal resistance. As we become more accomplished, this resistance grows; it is easier to assume that because we are experienced, so we don’t need to consult anyone. But the main reason behind this instruction is not because we lack the intelligence to make decisions, as much as the recognition of how emotions, impulses, and visions of how we want things to turn out can cloud judgment — “love conceals all blemishes” (Proverbs 10:12).
Therefore, establishing a connection with a mentor as a rule of life — an essential value — applies to people of all ages, no matter how astute or experienced you may be. Setting up this system, where for big choices you have someone with a Torah perspective to consult, is not a luxury.
[We have all seen plenty of examples of the failure to do so. Whether it’s a teenager imprisoned by emotional turmoil, wasting hours each day in the pursuit of instant pleasures and escapes, while refusing to listen to his parent’s pleas to seek guidance — because he thinks he can work through everything on his own.
Or an adult in a destructive relationship, wherein her closest friends and family members all recognize the long-term damage of staying, but the person keeps believing things will change. Though in other areas, that same person may be astute and sensible, in this situation she is too deeply involved to judge wisely. As a result, she continues to suffer, relying on intuition over reason, without having an established guide to follow.]
The Mishna, therefore, emphasizes “appoint yourself a rabbi” — even if it’s not the perfect match. Furthermore, this outlook to “appoint a rabbi” helps cultivate the most vital trait of humility which leads to greater clarity, deference which ultimately carries over into one’s relationship with God.
(From a mystical perspective, this system also ensures that the right path is taken: when we display the willingness to place our ego aside by asking advice — for the sake of making the correct decision — the best answer and clarity we seek is then transmitted through the mouth of the appointed guide.)
A natural fit
While a mentor/rabbi is mostly about ensuring that you hear a more objective and wiser perspective, a friend is different. And here is where the precise wording of the Mishna comes into play: With friendship, the Hebrew term used is kneh, to “acquire.”
On the surface, it may appear as if the text is simply recommending finding and gaining a friend. Afterall, a close friendship is one of the biggest blessings in life, a refuge in times of trouble or loneliness. But unlike a mentor, the emphasis in friendship is on giving, something you invest in. And using the term “acquisition” conveys that just as with the purchase of an object, a friend must fit your taste and personality.
A good friend is acquired in the sense that this relationship must involve loyalty, connection and comfort — in contrast to a mentor, this person cannot just be designated. It is someone in whose presence you are comfortable, and with whom you act freely and can speak about anything, without the fear of being judged. The connection must be smooth and natural, with mutual appreciation and trust.
Finally, with a mentor, there may be a feeling of distance or reverence, but a close friend offers that level of comfort and safety to share more. It is also a good friend that can lead one to the right mentor or help implement the advice. So, at times, these two relationships end up working in harmony.