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Shiur #15: Maharal on Avot - Perek 2, Mishna 8

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein


Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai (RYB"Z) had five students:  R. Eliezer b. Hurkenos, R. Yehoshua b. Chananya, R. Yosei Ha-Kohein, R. Shimon b. Netan'eil, and R. Elazar b. Arakh.  He used to list their praises:  "R. Eliezer b. Hurkenos is like a well-lined pit that does not lose a drop; R. Yehoshua b. Chananya, happy is the one who bore him; R. Yosei Ha-Kohein is a chasid; R. Shimon b. Netan'eil is one who fears sin; and R. Elazar b. Arakh is like an ever-flowing spring."


He (RYB"Z) used to say:  "If all the sages of Israel were on a balance, and Eliezer b. Hurkenos were on the second side, then he would outweigh them all.  Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the sages of Israel were on a balance, including R. Eliezer b. Hurkanos, and R. Elazar b. Arakh were on the second side, then he would outweigh them all."


He (RYB"Z) said to them:  "Go and see which is the good path to which a person should cleave."  R. Eliezer says, "a good eye;" R. Yehoshua says, "a good friend;" R. Yosei says, "a good neighbor;" R. Shimon says, "one who understands what will happen;" R. Elazar says, "a good heart."  He (RYB"Z) said to them:  "I accept R. Elazar b. Arakh's view, for it includes all of yours."


He (RYB"Z) said to them:  "Go and see which is the evil path from which a person should distance himself."  R. Eliezer said, "an evil eye;" R. Yehoshua said, "an evil friend;" R. Yosei said, "an evil neighbor;" R. Shimon says, "one who borrows and does not repay, which is just as evil when done to another human being as when done to God, as the verse says: 'An evil borrower who does not repay, and a righteous person is gracious and gives.'"  R. Elazar says, "an evil heart."  He (RYB"Z) said to them:  "I accept R. Elazar b. Arakh's view, for it includes all of yours."




The mishna's mentioning that RYB"Z had five students is odd in itself both because presumably he had more than five students and also because we do not generally (in Avot, at least) take inventory of a person's students.  In reading the mishna, we would obviously also wonder about the praises of them that are recorded and the double episode of the search for paths to adopt or avoid.  Maharal will deal with these questions.




Maharal is going to offer two explanations of the five students' suggestions for the best characteristic to adopt.  In the first explanation, Maharal sees the various qualities as listed in an ascending order of putting oneself out for others. That is, if we are searching for a central character trait from which to grow and foster one's personal development, each of the tannaim chooses a trait that involves a person with others' good, to some extent.


A Torah U-madda moment: I recently read a book entitled "The Wisdom of the Ego," by a psychiatrist named George Vaillant, in which he views life as a series of tasks that our egos are supposed to accomplish.  Working off other psychologists' ideas, Vaillant sees the tasks of adulthood as focusing on an ever-widening sphere of relationships.  Thus, in his view, people generally need to master the tasks of intimacy (in marriage or its equivalent) and then career before becoming truly generative, when they give to others.


Without endorsing the book - there are certainly other ways to view the process of adult growth - it is interesting that Maharal also focuses on how far to extend oneself as the fundamental question about the central character trait required to foster one's personal growth.  Each tanna in Maharal's reading chooses a broader level of awareness of others than had the sage who preceded him.


Maharal takes R. Eliezer's ayin tova (a good eye) to mean that a person should look well on others, wish them well, be happy in their successes, and so on.  A person who becomes accustomed to wishing others well will grow from there.  R. Yehoshua chooses a trait that involves putting oneself out a bit more even initially, in that in acting as a good friend to others, one can provide them with good advice.  R. Yosei chooses being a good neighbor, since neighbors actually do favors for each other, lending each other various items.  Lending, however, is not a full kindness, since the object comes back to you, meaning that the situation is one of zeh neheneh ve-zeh lo chaser, the person receiving the favor benefits, but the one doing the favor is not put out in any way.


Recognizing that this is a somewhat limited version of kindness, R. Shimon expands it to haro'eh et ha-nolad, being able to recognize the future course of events.  Maharal, in keeping with his picture of each student as further expanding the previous horizons of kindness, sees this as a reference to more general kindness, which actually costs the person doing the kindness.  Since we all will need such favors in the future (hence the characterization of this as "seeing the future"), we should perform those acts of kindness for others.  Finally, R. Elazar suggests a good heart, a characteristic that leads to all the other forms of kindness.




As presented, there is not anything particularly new in Maharal's presentation, and indeed he finishes this part of his interpretation by saying that this is the way one would interpret the mishna in the manner of umdena, meaning using one's intellect without considering the deeper structures of nature.  I do think it is worth noting, though, that Maharal assumes each of the students is expanding on the one who preceded him.  Other commentators, I believe, think that a good eye, being a good friend, etc. are simply competing versions of the best place to start on the road to perfection, with R. Elazar b. Arakh being the exception, in that his version encompasses all the rest.


However, since Maharal sees the five as espousing ever-more-selfless central traits, he seems to be seeing each as building on the one that came before.  The problem with that view is that the mishna does not indicate such a rising order.  In fact, RYB"Z's statements (which we will get to next week, be-ezrat Hashem) that R. Eliezer outweighs all the others presents a problem for Maharal, since he saw R. Eliezer as presenting the most minimal starting point.  If R. Eliezer were really the greatest of them, then why did he not choose a better central characteristic?


When presenting this view, also, Maharal does not mention RYB"Z's praises of his students or the connection between those praises and the characteristic each student chose.  He then goes back, however, to suggest a deeper meaning to this whole incident, based not only on umdena, but on an understanding of the Rabbinic view of the interplay of the physical and spiritual within a person (a topic we know from other occasions that Maharal cared about greatly).




In Maharal's view, there are five (an important number, as we will see) fundamental aspects to the human being, which can be split into two powers and the bodily aspects that support those powers, as well as the one root power for all of them.  Specifically, a person has the strength of their souls and the physical parts of the body that support the separate soul, the intellect and the bodily aspects that support that intellect, as well as the root of it all, which is also largely intellectual.


The praises of each of RYB"Z's students match one of those powers.  For example, R. Eliezer's memory indicates a power of the soul that works particularly well, in that it retains whatever comes its way.  The praise of the woman who gave birth to R. Yehoshua indicates a physical perfection (since, as we have seen before, Maharal sees women as more physically oriented than men).  A chasid is one who physically manifests an intellectual idea, so that it demonstrates a physical perfection connected to the intellectual.  A yerei chet (one who fears sin) has a well-honed intellect, and R. Elazar's ever-flowing spring means that the central human aspect, the one that combines the other four, is particularly perfect.


There are two interesting points in Maharal's interpretation even thus far: first, in assuming that R. Shimon b. Netan'eil's characteristic of fear of sin indicates an intellectual capacity, Maharal seems to assume that being a yerei chet requires a greater intellect than being a chasid, or at least a more purely intellectual capacity.  I find this interesting, because usually it is the other way - fear of sin is seen as an easier level to reach than chasidut.  In Maharal's version, though, fear of sin stems from one's intellectual side, whereas chasidut is an expression of the physical body's support for one's intellect - in controlling one's physical self appropriately, one achieves the status of chasid.


Once Maharal has defined R. Shimon as intellectually excellent, he may have explained more clearly the difference between R. Eliezer, who had a perfect memory, R. Shimon, and R. Elazar, the ever-flowing spring.  Instead, Maharal simply claims that they are three differing aspects of the intellect, although he perhaps means to differentiate among them along the following lines: memory (comprehension/retention) for R. Eliezer, expressing a perfection of the soul; purity of intellect for R. Shimon (clarity of understanding, perhaps sharpness of insight); and creativity for R. Elazar, a central human quality spanning all of the person's powers.




Maharal's envisioning human capabilities as divisible into five parts allows him to explain the relevance of two puzzling numbers in different sources. First, the Talmud relates a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as to whether or not it would have been better for people never to be created.  Regardless of the outcome of that discussion, the Talmud mentions that they argued about it for two-and-a-half years, an odd piece of information to include in its recounting of the story.


For Maharal, the number two-and-a-half exactly splits the person's capabilities in half: two-and-a-half of our capabilities are spiritual (meaning not centered in the body), so that it is good for us to have been created, whereas the other two-and-a-half are physical, drawing us to sin, making it worse for us that we were created.  In Maharal's reading, then, two-and-a-half does not really refer to years, but to the aspects of the humans that they were weighing in their debate.


In an unrelated topic, the Torah assigns objective monetary values to humans for the case in which one says, "I promise to donate my 'erekh' to the Beit Hamikdash."  This term does not refer to one's value in the marketplace, which is "shovi."  Rather, "erekh" is a technical term used by the Torah to refer to a person's value based on age and gender.


Maharal notes that two of the values assigned to males, five and fifty, revolve around the number five.  He suggests that it is because of the five controlling aspects of human beings:  when young, those aspects are undeveloped, so they are each assigned a value of one; as the person reaches adulthood, they are ten times as valuable (as we will see, the number ten for Maharal indicates completeness). What I find interesting about this piece is Maharal's attempt to explain numbers and values that may seem arbitrary.



In the next piece, Maharal relates each of the characteristics of RYB"Z's students to the character trait they recommended adopting, seeing each of those traits as a function of whichever part of the physical/spiritual divide the rabbi was.  For that listing, though, we will wait until next week.