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Thursday, December 08, 2022
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רַבִּי אוֹמֵר, אֵיזוֹהִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיָּבוֹר לוֹ הָאָדָם?
כֹּל שֶׁהִיא תִפְאֶרֶת לְעוֹשֶׂיהָ וְתִפְאֶרֶת לוֹ מִן הָאָדָם … (אבות ב:א)

As we saw last time, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi asks: “What is the straight path that a person should choose?” His answer focuses on one word: “tiferet.” Tiferet means more than just beauty; it connotes a harmonious balance between differing ideas or components.1 What different components should comprise the tiferet of one’s life path?

Rabbi Yehuda’s answer delineates two types of tiferet: “l’oseha” and “min ha’adam.” Let us explore each of these:

 

Min Ha’Adam

“Tiferet lo min ha’adam,” means that others perceive our path as beautiful. People naturally see their own path positively;2 others seeing it that way is critical confirmation.

Many mishnayot in Avot convey the importance of how others perceive us. The fourth perek3 quotes Rabbi Shimon, who rates the “crown” of a “good name” as greater than all other crowns (Torah, malchut and kehunah). Rav Chanina Ben Dosa4 goes even further by asserting that Hashem is comfortable only with those who other people are comfortable with, as well. One who only performs mitzvot bein adam laMakom — focusing solely upon his relationship with Hashem — is not just insensitive towards other people; he lacks a meaningful relationship with Hashem as well.

 

Oseha

But this is only Rabbi Yehuda’s second stated criteria; his first one is: “tiferet l’oseha.” Who is the “oseha” that Rabbi Yehuda is referring to?

Most meforshim5 understand the word “oseha,” as referring to the person himself. In addition to others finding a person’s life beautiful, Rabbi Yehuda believes that our path in life needs to resonate with our own selves. The way we live, needs to be a true expression of our unique character and (thus) destiny.

According to this understanding, Rabbi Yehuda’s full statement teaches that one’s life needs to be beautiful to both oneself and to others.

 

Balance — The Middle Path

Many Rishonim6 understand the Rabbi as addressing an additional issue: the balance between ourselves and others. There is a natural tension between our focus upon our own needs and goals, and our caring for and assistance to others. Rabbi Yehuda’s point is that we need to strike the right balance between these (often) competing values.

The Rambam7 gives the example of the need to find the middle ground between being miserly and being irresponsibly altruistic. Though we need to be charitable, we should prioritize taking care of ourselves and our own families. This is what the Rambam calls the “derech ha’emtzai (the balanced path)”8 where both ideals are appreciated and integrated harmoniously.9 This, explains the Rambam and others, is what Rabbi Yehuda means when he says that the straight path is one that is beautiful both for oneself as well as for others.10

 

Osehu

The problem with this interpretation is that the word, “oseha” is a strange way to describe oneself. For this reason, many commentaries11 prefer a different girsa (text) of the mishnah that reads “osehu.”12 This version emphasizes the importance of one’s path being beautiful in the eyes of “the One who made us” — Hashem.

It is understandable that we would use our Creator’s perspective to validate our life’s path. We ought to aim to achieve the destiny we were created to realize. There is no greater authority on this matter than Hashem — our Creator.

Rabbi Yochanan also used our Creator as his yardstick, in his famous words: “Ashrei mi … she’amalo baTorah v’oseh nachat ruach lyotzro13 — Happy is the one involved in Torah who gives nachat to his Creator.” If Hashem has nachat from us, we know that we are living up to our “factory settings.”

Hashem’s opinion about our lives is particularly relevant to determining the “derech yesharah,” the Rabbi asked about. As Hashem is the model for the very concept of yashrut (integrity), it makes sense that He would be the one to determine whether we are achieving it.

 

The Eyes of God and Man

According to this interpretation, Rabbi Yehuda’s full statement emphasizes the importance of man’s path being beautiful in the eyes of both God and of man.14 We find this idea in many places in Tanach15 and in the words of Chazal.16 The Gra connects our mishnah to the famous pasuk (we quote at the end of our bentching) which encourages man to “find favor and appear wise in the eyes of God and man.”17

 

Beautiful All Around

If we combine the two versions of the mishnah, we derive the importance of three different perceptions: how God perceives us, how society perceives us and how we perceive ourselves. The straight path is one viewed by all three, as beautiful and harmonious.


Rabbi Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat HaKotel.


1 See Olat Re’iyah 33.

2 See the commentary of the Rosh and Sefer Mishlei 12:15 and 21:2.

3 Masechet Avot 4:13: “Kol she’ruach ha’briyot nochah heimenu, ruach haMakom nochah heimenu.”

4 Mesechet Avot 3:10.

5 Rambam and others.

6 Rambam in both Mishna Torah Hilchot De’ot 1 and Shemona Perakim 4. See also Rabbeinu Bachya, Meiri and Bartenura.

7 Ibid., see halacha 4.

8 Often mistranslated as the middle path.

9 The Rambam integrates this with the “derech Hashem,” Hashem mentioned that Avraham would teach to his children.

10 The Machzor Vitri connects this to the previous mishnayos (1:18) theme of the importance on the one hand of emet and mishpat, and shalom on the other — both must coexist together.

11 See the commentaries of the Meiri and Rabbeinu Yonah, and Tosafot to Masechet Nedarim 22b. 

12 The Rashbatz brings this in his peirush, “Magen Avot,” in the name of Ritz Gei’ut — one of the earlier Spanish Rishonim. Others bring this based on Sefer Iyov 4:17 and Tehillim 149:2, which describe Hashem as the one who made us.

13 Masechet Berachot 17a.

14 The Tashbetz explains that the girsah was corrupted — the vav of “osehu” was mistakenly inserted into the second phrase of the mishnah. If we put the vav back into “osehu,” the mishnah isn’t saying you need both of these; it is saying that anyone who is tiferet in the eyes of osehu will automatically be tiferet in the eyes of all people. Living up to G-d’s standards yields other people appreciating the way we’re living.

15 Bamidbar 32:22. See Masechet Pesachim 13a and Masechet Yoma 38a.

16 The Sifrei explains that the two phrases of tov and yashar refer to how G-d and man see us, respectively. See also Bereishit Rabbah on 6:9.

17 Mishlei 3:4.

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