The significance of human relationships

By Rabbi Dan Lewin

Our study of Torah often follows cycles that align with daily and annual rhythms, where specific texts are revisited at certain times. Between Pesach and Shavuot, there is a customary practice to study one chapter of Pirkei Avot, known as “Ethics of our Fathers,” every Shabbat. Some communities extend this practice throughout the summer, continuing until Yom Kippur.

Unlike other Mishnaic texts that primarily focus on legal statutes, Pirkei Avot offers advice for enhancing the law and refining character. Each Mishnah encapsulates the life lessons of a different Sage.

Just as there are two widespread customs for the duration of studying this text, there are also two distinct reasons for its study during this period. The first serves as preparation for receiving the Torah, echoing the principle of “Derech eretz precedes Torah” — that ethical conduct and respectful behavior are foundational prerequisites to entering this spiritual gateway. The second practice is more attuned to the season: During the summertime, filled with visual delights and vacations that disrupt our disciplined routine, bodily temptations may drown out spiritual sensitivities. To combat these distractions and prevent a case of “Yeshurun became fat and rebelled” (Devarim 32:15), we review a text focused on fine-tuning our soul and taming natural passions.

Perhaps we can link each custom to one of the reasons. According to the first perspective of studying only between Pesach and Shavuot, the Jewish people reached a peak of spiritual refinement when receiving the Ten Commandments. The work done during these seven weeks is sufficient to last the entire summer. However, the second practice takes a broader perspective. Even after the miracles and revelation at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people slipped badly. It took until Yom Kippur — when they received the second set of tablets — for them to reconnect, reach an even higher level and become “baalei teshuva,” masters of repentance.

Therefore, the development of these two customs hinges on whether attaining the level of righteousness at the time of the first tablets suffices, or if our study mirrors the journey of teshuva necessary to receive the second tablets, a more dedicated and scrupulous self-development.

Categories of mitzvahs

The tablets of the Ten Commandments themselves contain two different categories of mitzvot: The first are private rituals (between man and G-d) and the second entail human relationships. Some people prioritize the first category, meticulously observing ritual mitzvot such as tefillin, Shabbat, prayer and Torah study. However, they may become so absorbed in their personal spiritual pursuits that they neglect interpersonal interactions and kindness. Conversely, there are individuals who excel in ethical behavior and kindness toward others but may overlook key mitzvah observances. Clearly, both aspects are essential.

In this week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot (3:10), we encounter a statement that underscores the significance of human relationships from a unique angle: “Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say…. One who is pleasing to his fellow men is pleasing to G-d. But one who is not pleasing to his fellow men is not pleasing to G-d.”

At first glance, one might question the novelty of this teaching. However, upon closer examination, we discover insights worthy of contemplation. Historically, during the time the Mishnah was taught and in subsequent generations, private mitzvah observance was more widespread and often taken for granted. The main distinction was between scholars and laypeople, with the classical measure of spiritual standing primarily centered on Torah knowledge.

However, this Mishnah introduces an alternative metric, shifting the focus from a limited human perspective to a divine viewpoint.

A criterion of divine favor lies in the esteem with which one is held by others. If someone is genuinely loved by their peers, it indicates that they are also beloved Above. This statement intertwines with the grand mitzvah to “love your fellow as yourself,” encapsulating the essence of the entire Torah.

The concept that human relationships serve as an indicator of divine love is straightforward: The qualities that lead people to appreciate an individual — humility, authenticity, truthfulness, generosity and kindness — are also valued by G-d. Therefore, someone who excels in fostering positive human relationships is beloved On High. From a deeper perspective, perhaps G-d values the fact that someone is cherished by others. It is as if G-d Himself joins in the affection others have for that person.

Ingredients

With the value of positive human impressions in mind, let’s delve into some challenges that individuals face on a daily basis. Each person resides within their own mind, navigating a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions while endeavoring to connect with others. Some individuals are less preoccupied or adept at ignoring internal interference, while certain souls naturally connect more harmoniously with one another.

For social interactions to be meaningful and spiritually fruitful, certain essential conditions must be met. The most basic prerequisite for good interaction is quieting all inner noise and turning one’s focus outward. During interactions, people give off vibes. So, one should always be mindful to emit good ones.

However, beyond this initial step, several factors come into play — respect, interest and intent. Respect forms the bedrock of any sustainable relationship; without it, the relationship is on borrowed time. In addition to the arrogant person being oblivious to their own arrogance, he or she naturally disrespects (devalues) others. That’s why arrogance is ignorance; you ignore the person in front of you.

Conversely, when respect exists but interest does not, conversations often remain superficial. Once someone understands that every individual is “created in the divine image” and furthermore offers something unique, it is easier to arouse the will to search for it even with individuals who aren’t as apparently talented or likable. But true depth in relationships requires good intentions — motivations that stem from a pure heart rather than an agenda, or even a desire to impress, to be liked or accepted.

To be sure, there is also an unrevealed bond that comes independently of any ingredients, such as between parent and child, family members or individuals of one people who share a common past and heritage. There is even a soul connection that stretches beyond time. But socially, the above ingredients are the minimum needed to awaken a tangible appreciation. And when interactions with certain individuals are repeatedly unfulfilling or turn sour, the root cause is usually a lack in one of these areas.

Active personal development in the realm of human relationships is crucial according to the Torah, yet often neglected. At a certain stage, we become consumed with survival and career, staying within our narrow social construction; and we become stagnant. Nevertheless, the goal is to wake up the soul to strive to continually increase our interest and understanding of others, as much as we focus on other crafts.

By sorting through these variables, in the context of Pirkei Avot, we can gain a better understanding of why certain interactions fall short of expectations and take proactive steps to clear the air as we begin to engage, thereby optimizing each meeting rather than leaving outcomes to instinct or chance.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.

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