April 17, 2024
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On the Straight and Narrow

By Rav Reuven Taragin

רַבִּי אוֹמֵר, אֵיזוֹהִי דֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה שֶׁיָּבוֹר לוֹ הָאָדָם?

כֹּל שֶׁהִיא תִפְאֶרֶת לְעוֹשֶׂיהָ וְתִפְאֶרֶת לוֹ מִן הָאָדָם. וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בְּמִצְוָה קַלָּה כְּבַחֲמוּרָה, שֶׁאֵין אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל מִצְוֹת. וֶהֱוֵי מְחַשֵּׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ, ושְׂכַר עֲבֵרָה כְּנֶגֶד הֶפְסֵדָהּ. (אבות ב:א)

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)

Pirkei Avot quotes two Tannaim who both asked the same question: “Eizo he derech yeshara—What is the straight path?” The question was asked first by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai1 (Riba”z), who lived at the time of the churban Beit Hamikdash, and then again by Rebbi Yehudah HaNassi (Rebbi), who lived 150 years later. It seems like the question’s importance caused it to be discussed over the course of many generations.2

 

The Important and Consistent Choice

Before studying the Tannaim’s answers, let’s examine their formulations of the question. Rebbi speaks of man “choosing” the straight path. Interestingly, instead of the word yivchar, which the Torah generally uses to connote choosing,3 Rebbi uses the word yavor. This may be meant as a hint to the pasuk in Kohelet that uses the same root to refer to God’s choice of man.4 If this inference is correct, Rebbi’s implication is that it is God’s choosing us which requires us to be careful about our life choices. Man is created in God’s image and we—the Jewish people—are his children. Our lives are significant and should be lived properly.

Instead of the word yavor, Riba”z uses the word sheyidbak, that he should stick to, to describe man’s choice. Riba”z emphasizes the need for our choices and life path to be consistent. Though different paths offer various benefits, it is important to live coherently. We do so by “sticking” to one path.

 

The Straight Path

Both Tannaim assume the importance of seeking the “derech yesharah, straight path.” Both these words—derech and yesharah—are significant.

Parshat Vayera quotes Hashem’s approval of Avraham’s intention to teach his children His derech of how to live in this world.5 A derech is more than just the fulfillment of a specific mitzvah or the performance of a particular good deed. It refers to a broader way of life. While Vayera uses the term derech to refer to acting in a just and kind way, the Tannaim ask a broader question: what is the best derech for a person’s life as a whole?

The second word, yesharah, straight, sharpens the question’s formulation and directs us toward the answer. Our goal should be the straight path. The Torah commands us to emulate Hashem (who is described as “straight”6) by living in a way He sees as straight—“V’asisa ha’yashar v’hatov b’einei Hashem.”7 In fact, the Midrash adds that Hashem created man in His image (only!) so that man can be yashar like Hashem!8 Hashem is the model of straightness and cannot tolerate those who live a crooked lifestyle.9

 

A Central Goal

Yashrut, straightness is meant to be one of our central personal growth goals. The Rambam asserts that most of the mitzvot are Hashem’s advice on how to fix our perspectives and straighten out our lives.10

Understandably, Rav Kook defines the goal of chinuch, education, as helping a person find their correct form, the central characteristic of which is being a person who is good and straight.11 This is why the Ramchal called his mussar sefer “Mesilat Yesharim,” The Path of the Straight. The sefer aims to help people identify and persist on the straight path.

 

Our Natural State

Yashrut is not an external value we need to transcend ourselves in order to achieve; it is our original, natural state. Sefer Kohelet teaches that Hashem creates man naturally yashar. It is man’s schemes and calculations that cause him to veer from his innate straight path.12

This explains why Rav Yochanan13 understood the term Sefer Hayashar14 as referring to Sefer Bereishit, “the book of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who are considered yesharim.” Because yashrut is man’s natural state, even before the giving of the Torah, our Avot were able to live their lives this way.

Thus, in essence, Rebbi and Riba”z are merely asking how we can sustain the natural yashrut we are all born with. Next week we will, iy”H, see their answers.


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


1 Though this Mishna is taught second (9th vs. 1st in the perek), it occurred earlier in time.

2 The Gemara (Masechet Tamid 28a) quotes Rebbi as well as other Tannaim asking and discussing this question in additional contexts. See also the Ruach Chaim commentary of Rav Chaim Volozhin.

3 For example, see Sefer Devarim 30:19: “וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים”.

4 Sefer Kohelet 3:18.

5 Sefer Bereishit 18:19.

6 Sefer Devarim 2:4, Sefer Tehillim 92:16.

7 Sefer Devarim 6:17–18. Rashi and the Ramban (ibid.) discuss exactly what the term means in that context. Rebbi here is asking about the broader sense of the term.

8 Midrash Tanchuma Bereishit 7:7.

9 Ha’emek Davar on the Torah, Introduction to Sefer Bereishit

10 Mishneh Torah Hilchot Temurah 4:13.

11 Igrot HaRe’eyah 170.

12 Sefer Kohelet 7:29. See also Rashi (ibid., quoting Kohelet Rabbah 7:41), who explains Kohelet as referring to Adam HaRishon, who veered from the straight path through the sin of eating from the Eitz Hada’at.

13 Masechet Avodah Zarah 25a. Rebbi Elazar sees the term as referring to Sefer Devarim, due to the aforementioned passuk, highlighting the centrality of that passuk.

14 Shmuel II 1:18.

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