ETHICS OF OUR FATHERS: Evil Friend, Holy Foe (Chapters 1&2)


Elul 11, 5772 * August 29, 2012


Evil Friend, Holy Foe

Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, and do not cleave to a wicked person.

- Ethics of our Fathers, 1:7

* * *

On the surface, Nitai the Arbelite appears to be conveying a simple, if redundant, message: Stay away from bad people. In truth, however, a much deeper lesson is implicit in his words. In fact, a close examination of his phraseology yields an altogether different sentiment.

What is the difference between a ``bad neighbor'' and a ``wicked person''? And why must one go so far as to ``distance oneself'' from the former, while, concerning the latter it is enough to avoid ``cleaving'' to him?

A ``bad neighbor'' means just that: not a bad person, but one whose proximity to yourself is detrimental to you. It may be that he is a righteous person, and that his path in life is, for him, most suitable and desirable; but if for you it is wrong and destructive, keep your distance.

On the other hand, a ``wicked person'' is not necessarily a bad neighbor if he is not in the position to influence you. From him you need not, and must not, distance yourself: on the contrary, befriend him, draw him close and help him improve himself, all the while taking care not to cleave to him and emulate his ways.

In other words: The evil in another is never cause for your rejection of him---only your susceptibility to what is evil for you. On the contrary, the ``wickedness'' of your fellow it is all the more a reason to become involved with him, and prevail upon him to cleave to the positive in yourself.

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Introductory reading to Ethics of the Fathers:

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: ``And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.'' (Sanhedrin, 11:1)

Chapter One

1. Moses received the Torah from [G-d at] Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.

2. Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.

3. Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.

4. Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah, and Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem, received the tradition from them. Yossei the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah would say: Let your home be a meeting place for the sages; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.

5. Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. And do not engage in excessive conversation with a woman. This is said even regarding one's own wife---how much more so regarding the wife of another. Hence, the sages said: One who excessively converses with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects the study of Torah, and, in the end, inherits purgatory.

6. Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.

7. Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not cleave to a wicked person, and do not abandon belief in retribution.

8. Judah the son of Tabbai and Shimon the son of Shotach received from them. Judah the son of Tabbai would say: When sitting in judgement, do not act as a counselor-at-law. When the litigants stand before you, consider them both guilty; and when they leave your courtroom, having accepted the judgement, regard them as equally righteous.

9. Shimon the son of Shotach would say: Increasingly cross-examine the witnesses. Be careful with your words, lest they learn from them how to lie.

10. Shmaayah and Avtalyon received from them. Shmaayah would say: Love work, loath mastery, and avoid intimacy with the government.

11. Avtalyon would say: Scholars, be careful with your words. For you may be exiled to a place inhabited by evil elements [who will distort your words to suit their negative purposes]. The disciples who come after you will then drink of these evil waters and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.

12. Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron---a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.

13. He would also say: One who advances his name, destroys his name. One who does not increase, diminishes. One who does not learn is deserving of death. And one who make personal use of the crown of Torah shall perish.

14. He would also say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

15. Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.

16. Rabban Gamliel would say: Assume for yourself a master; stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.

17. His son, Shimon, would say: All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The essential thing is not study, but deed. And one who speaks excessively brings on sin.

18. Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel would say: On three things the world endures: law, truth and peace. As is stated, ``Truth, and a judgement of peace, you should administer at your [city] gates.''

Chapter Two

1. Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] would say: Which is the right path for man to choose
for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious
for mankind.
Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know
the rewards of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its
rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost.
Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of
transgression: Know what is above from you: a seeing eye, a listening ear,
and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.

2. Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the
study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes
sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied
with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.
Those who work for the community should do so for the sake of Heaven; for
then merit of their ancestors shall aid them, and their righteousness shall
endure forever. And you, [says G-d,] I shall credit you with great reward as
if you have achieved it.

3. Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their
own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they
do not stand by a person at the of his distress.

4. He would also say: Make that His will should be your will, so that He should
make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that
He should nullify the will of others before your will.
Hillel would say: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not
believe in yourself until the day you die. Do not judge your fellow until
you have stood in his place. Do not say something that is not readily
understood in the belief that it will ultimately be understood. And do not
say ``When I free myself of my concerns, I will study,'' for perhaps you
will never free yourself

5. He would also say: A boor cannot be sin-fearing, an ignoramus cannot be
pious, a bashful one cannot learn, a short-tempered person cannot teach,
nor does anyone who does much business grow wise. In a place where their are
no men, strive to be a man.

6. He also saw a skull floating upon the water. Said he to it: Because you
drowned others, you were drowned; and those who drowned you, will themselves
be drowned.

7. He would also say: One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who
increases possessions, increases worry; one who increases wives, increases
witchcraft; one who increases maidservants, increases promiscuity; one who
increases man-servants, increases thievery; one who increases Torah,
increases life; one who increases study, increases wisdom; one who increases
counsel, increases understanding; one who increases charity, increases
peace. One who acquires a good name, acquired it for himself; one who
acquires the words of Torah, has acquired life in the World to Come.

8. Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel and
Shammai. He would say: If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit
for yourself---it is for this that you have been formed.

9. Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai had five disciples: Rabbi Eliezer the son
of Hurkenus, Rabbi Joshua the son of Chananya, Rabbi Yossei the Kohen, Rabbi
Shimon the son of Nethanel, and Rabbi Elazar the son of Arach. He would
recount their praises: Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus is a cemented
cistern that loses not a drop; Rabbi Joshua the son of Chananya---fortunate
is she who gave birth to him ; Rabbi Yossei the Kohen---a chassid ; Rabbi
Shimon the son of Nethanel fears sin; Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an
ever-increasing wellspring.
[Rabbi Yochanan] used to say: If all the sages of Israel were to be in one
cup of a balance-scale, and Eliezer the son of Hurkenus were in the other,
he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the sages of
Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, Eliezer the son of Hurkenus
included, and Elazar the son of Arach were in the other, he would outweigh
them all.

10. [Rabbi Yochanan] said to them: Go and see which is the best trait for a
person to acquire. Said Rabbi Eliezer: A good eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: A good
friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: A good neighbor. Said Rabbi Shimon: To see what
is born. Said Rabbi Elazar: A good heart. Said He to them: I prefer the
words of Elazar the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of
He said to them: Go and see which is the worst trait, the one that a person
should most distance himself from. Said Rabbi Eliezer: An evil eye. Said
Rabbi Joshua: An evil friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: An evil neighbor. Said
Rabbi Shimon: To borrow and not to repay; for one who borrows from man is as
one who borrows from the Almighty, as is stated, ``The wicked man borrows
and does not repay; but the righteous one is benevolent and gives.'' Said
Rabbi Elazar: An evil heart. Said He to them: I prefer the word of Elazar
the son of Arach to yours, for his words include all of yours.
They would each say three things:
Rabbi Eliezer would say: The honor of your fellow should be as precious to
you as your own, and do not be easy to anger. Repent one day before your
death. Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but be beware lest you be
burned by its embers; for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is
the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss a serpent, and all their
words are like fiery coals.

11. Rabbi Joshua would say: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and the hatred of
one's fellows, drive a person from the world.

12. Rabbi Yossei would say: The property of your fellow should be as precious to
you as your own. Perfect yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an
inheritance to you. And all your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven.

13. Rabbi Shimon would say: Be meticulous with the reading of the Shma and with
prayer. When you pray, do not make your prayers routine, but [an entreatment
of] mercy and a supplication before the Almighty, as is stated ``For He is
benevolent and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, and
relenting of the evil decree.'' And do not be wicked in your own eyes.

14. Rabbi Elazar would say: Be diligent in the study of Torah. Know what to
answer a heretic. And know before whom you toil, and who is your employer
who will repay you the reward of your labors.

15. Rabbi Tarfon would say: The day is short, the work is much, the workers are
lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.

16. He would also say: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but
neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much
Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay
you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is
in the World to Come.

Studied at the conclusion of each lesson of the Ethics:

Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, ``G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.'' (Makot, 3:16)


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