pirkei avot 2:15 - Approaching the Sages

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

They [each of Rabban Yochanan's students] had three things to say: Rabbi Eliezar ben Hyrkanus said, (1) "Let your friend's honor be as dear to you as your own. (2) Do not be easily moved to anger. (3) Repent a day before you die." He continued, "Warm yourself before the fire of the sages but beware of their glowing embers lest you burn yourself for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting the sting of a scorpion; all their words are like coals of fire."

The greatest pleasure around can be found in the discomfort of the growth process, whether it be improvement in one's character traits, baseball pitch or test results in calculus. Man was born to struggle and in the process of toiling, to reveal his latent potential. Look up to the apex of the mountain, Rabbi Eliezar seems to be urging, mark down how you are going to make it to the top before sunset. 

The following are several steps one must take in order to reach that end. First, one must bestow upon his friend, a being outside himself, the same degree of honor he covets for himself. It's not always simple but healthy relationships stand upon foundations like consideration, loyalty, kindness etc. Next, once good relations are established, Rabbi Eliezar address's the importance of holding fast to one's temper. After all, the more you itch to lose it, the tighter you should cling to it. Take a deep breath, count to ten and ask yourself whether the topic at hand is worth your flying off the handle. Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?

Regarding the third of Rabbi Eliezar's phrases, "Repent a day before you die." Rashi, one of the 11th century commentaries, says that one must always imagine that 'tomorrow may be my last.' Now, since some people feel uncomfortable with serious topics, they choose to cope by cracking jokes. One might be tempted to play the morbid humorist and deflect the discomfiting idea of death with a leery smile and say, "Don't go wandering down any dark alley ways with me tonight, heh heh heh."  Again: chill, take a deep breath, and reflect. Rabbi Eliezar was not looking to repel us or make us fidgety. He was saying that there is more to this world than we realize. "Death is but the next great adventure." In order for us to get prime seats in the world to come i.e. heaven, we need to stay focused in this world. Shlomo haMelech says in the book of Kohelet, "Better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting" (Ecclesiastics 7:2). Why? Mourning serves as a sobering reminder that our time is ticking ...focus....focus....focus. 

This great sage knew how to plan ahead. Here is his last concrete piece of advice on how to keep balanced while in the state of growth. In order to get by in this cold, clueless world, one must place himself opposite the warm fire of our sages' teachings. Note, he said 'opposite' and not 'close.' Approach the wisdom of the sages with caution. Beware, lest you sit too close and take on too many mitzvot (commandments) prematurely. Careful lest your newly kindled enthusiasm leads you to transgression or burn out. Ease into it. Eventually, you'll change.     

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