אָמַר לָהֶם (רַבָּן יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי), צְאוּ וּרְאוּ אֵיזוֹהִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיִּדְבַּק בָּהּ הָאָדָם?
רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, עַיִן טוֹבָה. רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹמֵר, חָבֵר טוֹב. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר, שָׁכֵן טוֹב.
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַנּוֹלָד. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, לֵב טוֹב.
אָמַר לָהֶם, רוֹאֶה אֲנִי אֶת דִּבְרֵי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ מִדִּבְרֵיכֶם, שֶׁבִּכְלָל דְּבָרָיו דִּבְרֵיכֶם … (אבות ב:ט)
Learning From the Outside
We saw that both Rabbi Shimon1 and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (Ribaz)2 inquired about the “straight path,” we should seek to live by. As opposed to Rabbi Shimon — who answered his own question — the Ribaz asked his students to suggest answers of their own.
The way the Ribaz instructed his talmidim to find the answer is important. His first words, “Tzeu u’reu — Go out and see,”3 imply that his students should look for the answers outside the beit midrash.4 Chazal use these same words (“tzeu u’reu”) in a number of different contexts,5 encouraging learning lessons from Moshe Rabbeinu and Yehoshua, as well as from non-Jews, donkey drivers and even snails. Though many lessons hinge on Torah teachings, others (especially those reflective of basic wisdom and menschlichkeit) can and should be learned from standard norms and behavior.
The Ribaz’s talmidim heeded his directive, and each brought back a different answer.
Rabbi Shimon focused on the importance of being “ro’eh et ha’nolad — anticipating future implications.”6 We often act without careful consideration of exactly how our actions will impact the future. Wise people7 find the straight path, when they apply such foresight. Rabbi Simcha Bunim M’ Peshischa said it this way: “Our decisions in life must be as strategically calculated as a person playing chess. See to it that any move you make is not later regretted.8
Rashi9 gives an example of the lack of such anticipation. The eviction of Bar Kamtza from the party he was mistakenly invited to, launched a chain of events that led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Had the host of the party and his (rabbinic) guests thought a few steps ahead and realized that their insensitivity towards Bar Kamtza could have such tragic results, the Churban might have been avoided.
We should learn from them to consider the long-term implications of our decisions and actions, before implementing them.
Seeking the Good
Ribaz’s other talmidim all answered his question by recommending pursuing something they describe as “tov.” They saw the straight path as the good path.
Various talmidim then pointed us towards different aspects of tov.
A Good Friend
Rebbi Yehoshua recommended choosing a “chaver tov — a good friend.” We saw that Avot’s first perek10 quoted Yehoshua ben Perachya who encouraged acquiring a friend, but did not specify the type of friend we should seek. Rebbi Yehoshua identified the type of friend as a “good” one.
What does he mean by a “good” friend? He could be referring to the basis of the friendship and/or its nature. A good friend shares one’s values, goals and sensitivities. A good friendship involves friends who can be trusted with personal information, and care about helping one another.11
Rav Ovadiah Mi’Bartenura adds that a good friendship includes offering constructive criticism. Friends should be more than flattering fans; they should help us improve and grow. Chazal identify Ohn ben Pelet’s wife12 as an example of such a “friend.” Though Ohn’s name is included in the original list of Korach’s rebels, it is absent from the continuation of the story. Chazal13 explain that this was because Ohn’s wife convinced him to drop out of the rebellion. Ohn’s wife was a true friend — one who was able to help her husband appreciate his mistake and change course.
A Good Neighbor
The next talmid of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai — Rabbi Yossi — emphasized the importance of good neighbors. Good neighbors can be even more important than good friends, because we interact with our neighbors constantly.14
The midrash calls this phenomenon “tov l’tzaddik, tov l’shecheino,” and illustrates it by contrasting the fate of the shevatim (tribes) who camped next to Moshe and Aharon in the desert with that of those who lived next to Korach.15 Yehudah, Zevulun and Yissacher pitched their tents next to Moshe and Aharon, and became Torah scholars like them. Reuven, Gad and Menashe had Korach as their neighbor, and became rabble-rousers like him. Though the whole Jewish people camped together — each shevet was influenced differently by their specific neighbor.
Avot’s sixth perek16 tells us how this idea guided Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma. He rejected a large sum of money offered in exchange for his moving to a town that lacked a strong Torah presence, because he feared being impacted by neighbors who lacked a Torah orientation.17
We are greatly influenced by our neighbors and need to choose them carefully.
The Tov Within
As opposed to the two aforementioned Tannaim — Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yossi (who apply the “tov” to those we interact with), the other two Tannaim — Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar — focus on developing the “tov” within ourselves. Though surrounding ourselves with good people is valuable, our ultimate goal should be to improve ourselves.
The Good Eye
Rabbi Eliezer recommends developing a good eye. Avot’s fifth perek18 emphasizes how significant this characteristic is, by listing it as the first of three factors that distinguish between the talmidim of Avraham Avinu and those of Bilam Harasha.19
The good eye is critical because it determines our perception of reality.20 It helps us focus upon the good in other people and in the world in general, and facilitates our appreciation of all the good done by Hashem and by other people on our behalf.21
This positive perception is also a condition for personal happiness. Sefer Tehillim22 presents “seeing the good,” as the way to love each day of our lives.23 One focused upon the negative will dislike the world and their life within it. On the other hand, focusing on the good, gives us reason to celebrate our existence within a world we see as wonderful. Though those focused upon the negative may be technically correct, their perspective depresses them. People who focus upon all the positives in their family, friends, community and life will be happy throughout each day.
Rav Kook24 saw the good eye as even more significant. He asserted that it not only sets our subjective perception, it impacts objective reality as well. Looking for the good in whatever we experience steers those events in a positive direction.25
The Heart of the Matter
The last of the talmidim — Rabbi Eliezer ben Arach — 26 focuses on something even more internal than our eyes. He emphasizes developing a “lev tov — good heart.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai responded that he preferred this answer, as it includes all the others. We can understand why this is the case: our hearts determine our perspective on life, as well as who we seek as friends and neighbors.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s talmidim provide us with a roadmap for how to find and sustain life’s straight path. The map includes who we associate with, but also — most importantly — what we choose to focus on and how we think and feel. May we use their advice to live our lives in the straight way Hashem created us.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.
1 Masechet Avot 2:1.
2 Masechet Avot 2:9.
3 The source for the phrase seems to be Shir Hashirim 3:11.
4 The Magen Avot commentary references the similar directive of: “Pok chazei mai ama davar — Go see the way people live their lives (Masechet Berachot 45a).”
5 See Vayikra Rabbah 1:15, Bamidbar Rabbah 8:4, Masechet Chagigah 9b, Kiddushin 31a and Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4:24. See also Tanya Perek 15.
6 The Gemara (Masechet Tamid 31b) quotes this as the answer given by the Chachmei Hanegev to Alexander Mokdun’s question of “Who is a chacham?”
See also the Yerushalmi (Sotah 39b) which uses this idea to explain the pasuk of “Ha’chacham einav b’rosho” (Kohelet 2:14:). Though everyone has physical eyes, a chacham uses his eyes to anticipate the impact of his decision.
7 See Talmud Bavli, Tamid 31b, which defines a chacham as one who is “ro’eh et hanolad.” See also Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Sotah 39b.
8 “Great Jewish Wisdom,” page 121.
9 Rashi to Masechet Gittin 55b d.h. mefached.
10 Masechet Avot 1:5.
11 See the commentary of the Rambam to Avot 1:5, where he elaborates on the various types and levels of friends and friendships.
12 The Midrash Shmuel says that the ultimate “chaver tov” is one’s wife. See also Malachi 2:14.
Chazal speak in many places (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yevamot 62b and Bava Batra 109b) about the positive or negative impact a wife can have on her spouse.
13 Talmud Bavli, Masechet Sanhedrin 109b.
14 See Mishlei 27:10, which highlights the significance of our proximity to our neighbors.
15 Bamidbar Rabbah 3:12 and Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 12. See also Yalkut Shimoni (49:161), which uses the actual phrase.
16 Masechet Avot 6:10.
17 See Rabbeinu Yonah (Rabbeinu Yonah to Masechet Avot 2:9) who explains that the “chaver tov” and “shachen tov” as not what we should look for, but who we should be. In addition to seeking out good friends and neighbors, we should be them for others.
18 Masechet Avot 5:19.
19 Hashem Himself is the model for having a good eye. Sefer Bereishit’s first perek emphasizes how Hashem saw each thing He created as good.
The Gemara (Masechet Sotah 38b) says that you can only give a kos shel bracha to someone who has a “tov avin.”
20 I speak about the “good eye” as relating to how we perceive reality. Many commentaries understand it as referring to benevolency. See Mishlei 22:9 and Talmud Bavli, Masechet Nedarim 38a which use the term this way.
21 Rabbi Nachman M’Breslov saw the good eye as the root of ahavat Hashem and ahavat Yisrael.
See also Likutei Maharan 282, where he applies this principle.
Rabbi Elimelech M’Lizhensk prayed: “Aderabah, tein b’libenu shenirah kol echad ma’alas chaveirenu — May (Hashem) place in our heart the ability to see the good in each other.”
22 Sefer Tehillim 34:12-14.
23 The Chofetz Chaim (who was named after this pasuk) taught (Chovat Hashemirah Perek 7) that following the advice of this pasuk is a better segulah than all the other segulot.
24 Orot Hateshuva 9. See also Orot Hakodesh 3, page 327.
25 The Ben Yehoyada used this idea to explain why Rabbi Akiva emphasized the importance of responding to (seemingly) bad news by saying that, “Everything Hashem does, He does for the good,” (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Berachot 60b). This verbal response helps transform the occurrence to the good.
See also Talmud Bavli, Masechet Makkot 24a for another example of Rabbi Akiva’s focus on the good.
26 As opposed to Rabbi Eliezer at the beginning of the mishnah.