pirkei avot 2:13-14 - Why does a "Good Heart" trump all else?

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

He said [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai], "Go out and seek the way which is most straight and to which a man should cling. Rabbi Eliezar said: In order to become upright in one's ways, he needs a good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said: He needs a good friend! Rabbi Yose said: He needs a good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: He needs to see where his actions will lead him. Rabbi Elazar ben Arach said: He needs a good heart. And Rabban Yochanan said to all of them, "I see in Rabbi Elazar ben Arach's words everyone else's!"  

Next, Rabban Yochanan advised, "Go out and seek the way which is most evil and which a person must distance himself from." Rabbi Eliezar said: an evil eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said: an evil friend. Rabbi Yose said: an evil neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: one who borrows and doesn't repay. When someone borrows from a man, it is one and the same as borrowing from G-d, as it says, 'The wicked borrows and does not repay, but the righteous one deals graciously and gives.' Rabbi Elazar ben Arach said: an evil heart. And Rabban Yochanan said to all of them, "I see in Rabbi Elazar ben Arach's words everyone else's!
When Rabban Yochanan says, "Go out and seek..." he offers his students the following challenge: leave the beit medrish (house of learning), a.k.a the homogeneous environment, and discover whether you have integrated my teachings well enough to apply them in new and strange places. "Go out and determine your values in the fires of experience" Ethics from Sinai. His top five students follow suit; they go out and seek their fortune, so to speak. Each returns with an invaluable character trait meant for cultivating circumstances of all shapes and sizes. 

Rabbi Eliezar suggests that one must have a good eye. This means that he must be receptive, have an open heart and be willing to share everything he knows. The man with a good eye finds gratification in his ability to teach. He does not begrudge others easy access to his hard earned knowledge but rather, enjoys the effect of improvement his teachings have. Conversely, one with an evil eye tends toward jealousy, is discontented with his lot and looks upon others like they have too much while he suffers from too little. The Torah warns, regarding him, "Beware lest your eye looks evilly upon your needy brother and you neglect him" (Deut. 15:9). Rabbi Eliezar, the cistern that never lost a drop, faithfully transmitted everything he picked up from Rabban Yochanan to the next generation.

Rabbi Yehoshua declares that one needs a good friend and should avoid bad friends. Considering that Rabban Yochanan praises Rabbi Yehoshua by saying, "Blessed be the one who bore him," one can deduce that Rabbi Yehoshua was a pleasure to be around. Perhaps he was even considered the paradigm of friendship. As an aside, is it not enough to just seek out a good friend. One must be a good friend also. How can one be a good friend? Cater to their needs. 

At the same time, Rabbi Yose, the pupil Rabban Yochanan regards as pious, advises us to find good neighbors. What's the difference between a good friend and a good neighbor? A neighbor, based on his habits and characteristics, can make or break you. One can separate from his friend when the day is done, neighbors are kind of like streetlamps, they're not going anywhere. Since Rabbi Yose was a man who went beyond the letter of the law, it stands to reason that a good neighbor is one who says, "What's your is yours and what's mine is yours" (Pirkei avot 4:13). On the flip side, bad neighbors are people who may ridicule and exploit you. Even worse, they may be a bad influence on you and your children. The worst thing about bad neighbors is that they end up "forcing" others to lower their standards if they want life to remain bearable. If that is the case, Irving Bunim advises one to bite the bullet and move to a neighborhood of like minded people where living according to a certain standard will not continue being such an uphill battle.

Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, who fears sin, says that one who wishes to remain upright should be able to predict where his decisions will bring him. "The wise man can see what will result." Therefore, he brings the example of borrowing without returning as an abominable trait one must disown. In the case of borrowing, when one takes out a loan and does not repay it, he has not only caused the creditor a loss, he has robbed the Creator of the Universe as well. After all, G-d will now have to reimburse the loaner. Take the above example as a cue for how to avoid sin.

Last but not least, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach claims that a good heart is needed if one is to remain upright. Why did Rabban Yochanan decide that a good heart trumps all else? One who seeks to find the good in every situation has the means to obtaining the characteristics that the other four students spoke about. Moreover, the heart is the seat of decisions. It has little to do with logic or reasoning. If the head wants one thing and the heart another, the heart will usually hijack the body and force it to go on a bender. Regarding this, the Torah commands, "Do not stray after your heart." Rather, train it to the point where it desires and will choose good. 

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