pirkei avot 1:6 - The Path to Living is Direction

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline

Joshua ben (the son of) P'rahyah and Nattai of Arbela received the tradition from them [Yosei ben Yoezar and Yosei ben Yochanon]. Joshua ben P'rahyah would say, "Provide yourself with a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every man in a favorable, meritorious light. 

Everyone needs direction: what follows, therefore, is for someone to find a teacher who will show him the ropes. One could argue that he doesn't want to be a follower, or that he balks at the thought of someone telling him what to do. This is not what Joshua ben P'rahyah is discussing here. Even Henry David Thoreau, a transcendentalist who believed in following his inner truths, regardless of majority opinion, had a mentor. "Providing oneself with a teacher" is about finding someone who will give you direction, not lead you by the nose.

The two questions that must be asked are, "What do I need a teacher for?" as well as "Which kind of personality would be best suited to my growth process?"
Take the following examples: the best fit for a driven personality, whose actions are all stepping stones toward an ultimate purpose, could be the tough-love mentor: the coach who eggs him/her on to greater heights. An ambitious person, he too might sweat out years of high school so that he will get accepted to the top college where he can study under the tutelage of the best teachers in science, English, or medicine so that he can be part of pushing the frontiers of his chosen field. Still others have simpler dreams; they are no less difficult to fulfill. For instance, the girl who wants to be a good wife and mother looks to her parents for direction. If she's lucky, her childhood will be the classroom. Thus, when she is older, ready to get married and raise her own family, she'll have the memories of how her parents raised her as well as their present day advice to buoy her on.  

Whether a person is looking to grow in spirituality, society, or improving his career, he must seek out and secure the rabbi or mentor best suited to his lifestyle choices. Moreover, one must "acquire for himself a friend," a personal foundation of support which will share in his good times and give him a shoulder to lean on in his weaker moments.

Joshua ben P'rahyah chose his words with care. The phrase "acquire for yourself" has the connotation of "buying."  While providing oneself with a teacher is about finding someone he can receive direction from, friendship is a back and forth seesaw effect of receiving, giving and receiving again. Relationships are important, Joshua is saying, so invest in them. If you want good friends, you go the extra mile. You pick up the phone first, you offer your friends concern and support if you see them struggling. Try to be available. They will reciprocate.

One sought after path toward good relationships is judging one's fellow man in a favorable light. However, if you do catch someone in an awkward situation and choose to justify his actions instead of condemning him, you need to know the conditions that apply. To start,  perhaps this person has a reputation for being a thief. One day, while taking a stroll, you spot him slipping his hand into a passerby's coat pocket; he is not likely to be up to any good. Therefore, according to the Torah, one isn't obligated to judge him favorably. On the other hand, if the man or woman discovered in a compromising position or place is already known for being a well-behaved, upstanding character, then the Torah commands one to come up with reasons to carry on seeing him in a meritorious light. Finally, you and I, the Toms, Dicks and Harrys of the every day man, called the ben oni in Hebrew, are also obligated to judge each other favorably. The ability to keep your cool plays a huge role in good relationships and besides, if you do not jump the gun with your fellow man, Hashem will look for reasons to withhold His harsh justice and judge you mercifully instead, as well.

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