Shiur #16: Maharal on Avot - Perek 2, Mishnayot 9-10

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein




Last week, we reviewed a second version of the five students of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai (RYB"Z), in which Maharal saw each as excelling in a different power, either of the soul, the intellect, the physical aspects that support that power, or the central human ability.  Maharal will now try to show how the character trait each chose when challenged by RYB"Z reflected his own personal strength.




That fact - that each student chose a character trait that related to his own personal strengths - explains for Maharal why RYB"Z did not just tell them his view of the central character trait to adopt.  Since he recognized that each had different strengths, he wanted them each to articulate a character trait that would build from that strength and grow from it.  While R. Elazar's choice was best for its inclusiveness, Maharal seems to be saying that each student was correct as to the quality that would be the most logical place for him to start.


Let us briefly review what the five say and how that reflects their personal character trait.  R. Eliezer prefers an ayin tova, a good eye, which means how one views the world.  A good eye does not mean the sharpness of one's sight, but the generosity of one's vision.  First, Maharal points out that it is those who have a good soul (the power in which he thought RYB"Z had praised R. Eliezer - a power connected TO the body but not OF the body) who will have a good, or generous, eye, and vice versa.  While that may have just been a question of empirical fact, Maharal then points out that the way in which we view the world is determined by an internal element.  Generosity of vision, or lack of it, is not a physical matter at all - it is a question of the nature of the person doing the viewing.


Maharal proves this in several ways, but the most interesting one to me is the use of the word ra'a in the Hebrew language, which can mean seeing as well as understanding.  Since understanding is a power of the soul (or mind, depending on what is being understood, but Maharal uses it in terms of the soul), the dual use of the verb shows that sight is not a purely physical process.  This notion is not all that radical, supported by common phrases such as "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder."  However, it does mean that we should be suspicious whenever we assume that the correct attitude towards some situation is objectively true, since attitudes (how we view something) are a function of sight, which is, as we have just said, a function of one's soul.  One man's catastrophe is another's miracle; one man's sinner is another's saint.




The discussion of R. Yehoshua's preference for a good friend is not so clear, but it connects to his prior claim that the praise of R. Yehoshua's mother was that she gave him a physical purity.  Here, Maharal refers to that as a power CONNECTED to (that will be the key word) the power of the soul (it is not, apparently, an actual power of the soul, but a connected one).  Building on that notion of connection, a good friend is also someone with whom we build connections, and that would therefore be R. Yehoshua's focus.


Maharal contrasts that with R. Yosei's preference for a good neighbor.  R. Yosei, let us remember, was praised for being a chasid, which Maharal saw as a physical power related to (not connected to) the intellect.  The intellect, for Maharal, is situated close to the human body but is not meaningfully part of it.  So, too, we are situated close to our neighbors but are not connected to them (unless they also become our friends). 


Maharal's conception of R. Yehoshua and R. Yosei characterizes not only friends and neighbors in an interesting way, but also the soul and the intellect.  For friends and neighbors, aside from the obvious discussion of connection, R. Yosei's belief that being (or having) a good neighbor can be of central religious value suggests that proximity to an ideal can be as or more productive than a close relationship to somebody of a lesser height.  While we may be able to connect to a friend, it is a less close connection to an exalted neighbor that R. Yosei (by virtue of his own personal strengths) stresses.  That same distinction applies to the soul and the intellect - we may be able to connect more closely to our souls, but certainly our intellects are the higher powers, the ones more effective in bringing us closer to God.




R. Shimon, whom Maharal had seen as being praised for a power of his mind in that he feared sin, chooses a trait that also depends on that quality.  Seeing the future, for Maharal, is not meant to be taken literally, but refers to being able to grasp a situation so fully as to predict its likely outcome.  Here again, then, the student is focusing on a trait that reflects his personal strength (or is demonstrating a way to build on that particular characteristic to come out at a high level of perfection.)


The challenge in R. Shimon's view is that he is the one of the five students whose negative trait does not exactly mirror the positive one.  While all the others, when asked for a negative trait to avoid, simply choose the opposite of the positive one they had chosen previously, R. Shimon chooses a completely different one: a borrower who does not repay.  Maharal needs to explain why R. Shimon chooses this and how it connects to his personal character trait of yir'at chet. 


After rejecting other ideas, Maharal says that one who does not repay a loan depends on other people, losing some of his independence and simplicity.  While not perfectly clear on this issue, Maharal seems to be saying that if one's property is held by other people to whom one is still obligated, then one's status as a completely independent person is damaged.  A thief also has someone else's money, but he is not truly indebted to that other person (he just has to repay what he stole).  A borrower who repaid his loan has freed himself of that connection to the other person.  But a borrower who does not repay maintains a connection to his lender, a connection that damages the purity that Maharal thought characterized R. Shimon.


This preference for simplicity differs sharply from the previous discussions, where we had been examining only how deep a connection to make to others.  Apparently, the intellect itself does not need any connection to others, so that if one has that power, the goal is to maintain it rather than expand it.


R. Elazar's leiv tov carries the day, however, because it deals with the underlying root power of the human person.  That means that even granting that each type of strength can be built upon to reach higher levels, the most effective and encompassing way to grow is to focus on the central element and build on that.






They (each) made three pronouncements.  R. Eliezer says: Let your fellow's honor be as important to you as your own; do not anger easily; repent one day before your death; and warm yourself by the fire of the sages; and be careful of their coals, lest you be burnt, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting the sting of a scorpion, their hiss the hiss of a serpent; and all of their words are like fiery coals.


Maharal notes two central issues in this mishna.  First, since RYB"Z's students presumably did not make only three statements in their lives, why does the mishna refer to each of them having made three.  Second, as many others have noted, R. Eliezer's statements recorded here seem to contain more than three statements.


For the first question, Maharal answers that three is the maximum number of objects that can be well-unified.  Up to three, one can have one at each extreme (or one from each of two different realms) with a third combining them together.  Of course, he sees five the same way elsewhere in the commentary - in fact, with five, he suggests that the fifth element of the group can unite the other four, which could be thought of as the edges of a square.  Nevertheless, the fewer elements there are, the stronger the connection that central one can create.  Hence the preference for finding their three unified statements.


Although we may have noticed this before, we again draw attention to Maharal's interest in central and unified views.  Other possible explanations, such as: the mishna chose three interesting comments by each student without those being related to each other; that three was a number chosen for other reasons; or that it happened to work out that each focused most famously on three ideas, was unsatisfactory to Maharal.  He was interested in, and assumed that others were interested in, a world where all the pieces fit together in a clear and organized way.


Maharal then assumes that R. Eliezer actually had two sets of three in this mishna: the statements about honor, anger, and repentance and then another three about the words of the sages.  While this might seem an obvious solution, I am unaware of anyone who had thought of it before.  Of course, to make it reasonable, Maharal has to explain the two groups of three and why R. Eliezer had two sets, while the other students had only one.




For the first set of three, Maharal assumes that R. Eliezer was trying to prescribe the areas in which to perfect oneself: one's relationship with others, one's internal perfection, and one's relationship with God.  For the first, having the appropriate kind of honor is vital.  Maharal interestingly notes that the friend referred to here must be an ordinary friend, since a friend in Torah needs to be treated as if he were a teacher (as Maharal knows from a mishna in the fourth chapter of this tractate).


Personal perfection comes from controlling one's anger, a casual comment that reminds us of the terribly destructive nature of anger, a topic much too long (and too short and simple) to expound upon here.


When it comes to perfecting one's relationship with God, the key element is teshuva, repentance, but R. Eliezer expresses that value in a somewhat odd way.  Instead of saying "always be in a penitent state," or something to that effect, he says, "repent a day before you die."  As the gemara in Shabbat points out, that phrase really means that everyone should repent every day, since none of us know when we will die.  Nevertheless, Maharal says, R. Eliezer attaches a special value to the repentance just before death, since it guarantees that we will meet our Maker in a state of righteousness.




Maharal's comment contrasts somewhat with the Rambam's belief, in Hilkhot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance), that repentance while young is preferable to later repentance, since one's urges to sin when young are stronger than when older (our interest in the physical pleasures does generally recede as we age). The two views are easily reconciled by paying attention to what they are discussing.  The Rambam is talking about the relationship between the teshuva and the sin, so that the closer the person's state at the moment of teshuva is to one's state at the moment of sin, the better the repentance.  Maharal is talking about teshuva as a tool to making one's meeting one's Maker go well, so that the later the teshuva the better.  Even so, it is interesting to find such contrasting views.




The second group of three statements of R. Eliezer's actually focuses on the same thing, creating a productive but careful relationship with the Sages - warming oneself by their fire but also taking the appropriate care not to be burnt by their heat.  These, in Maharal's view, are ways to perfect one's intellect (note his implicit emphasis on sages as the source of one's own intellectual perfection).



In coming weeks, we will see what the rest of the students had to say.