D’var Torah – a three part teaching, Pirkei Avot 1:6
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 22 March 2019
A joint D’var Torah on the occasion of Rabbi Mark’s last Erev Shabbat as an Alyth rabbi.
Rabbi Hannah: The number three in Judaism has great symbolism. The world stands on three things – Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasidim – and is sustained by three others – justice, truth and peace.
Three is often a number of harmony. Take for example the third day of creation, when God confined the water to the seas and uncovered the dry land. From this the first signs of life could appear, vegetation, and the world felt a bit more complete.
The significance of the number three is reflected in many rabbinic teachings with their threefold structure. Tonight we wanted to share such a text which speaks to the experience of our rabbinic team at Alyth, the three of us.
This teaching is 2,200 years old, one of the earliest in our tradition.
It is given in the name of Joshua ben Perachyah, who lived in the second century BCE. He said (Pirkei Avot 1:6):
Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and judge each person according to their own merits.
Aseh l’cha rav – find yourself a teacher
Rabbi Hannah: The choice of verb here is interesting. It doesn’t say ‘get’ or ‘acquire’ but ‘aseh’, make. It implies that we have the ability to turn anyone into our teacher, we just have to be open to learning from them. As Ben Zoma says three chapters later in Pirkei Avot, Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.
To be a teacher, you have to be continually willing to develop and learn from those around you. Which is why our team rabbinate was never one of instruction, but rather one where we all absorbed skills and knowledge from one another.
To be a teacher in a community, you also have to be aware that learning is not a one way street. We have the joy of learning from our congregants, often able to bring a different perspective into shiurim from their personal backgrounds and outside knowledge. We become the best teachers, when we still consider ourselves students.
U’k’neh l’cha chaver – acquire for yourself a friend
Rabbi Josh: We are familiar with the word chaver from modern Hebrew – it means a friend.
But in rabbinic literature it has deeper resonances. A chavurah was a formal group who contracted to come together to make a sacrificial meal; chavruta – study in a pair requires challenge – ‘iron sharpens iron’, as Proverbs states; the chaverim in the Babylonian Talmud were not just mates, but a formal association with set entry procedures, committed to the observance of religious life.
There is insight in the verb that Joshua ben Perachyah chooses – we might make friends, but we acquire a chaver – with effort and sacrifice.
To be a chaver is not just about friendship but about task – to share a common cause; shared goals, vision, ideals.
To be chaverim in the building of synagogue – as rabbis, professionals, lay leaders, volunteers – does not require us to like each other (though that has certainly helped over the last decade) but to be committed to working with one another, bound together in our joint endeavour of community.
Ve’chevei dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf z’chut – judge each person according to their own merits.
Rabbi Mark: Is it really right to judge people at all? Certainly not if you don’t know them, nor if you have not taken the time to find out what is special about them, what challenges they live with, what abilities they have, perhaps buried under the lack of self-confidence that so many of us share. It means than anyone who wants to be in community and truly pray, learn and live together has a delightful task on their hands – it is to value every member of the minyan like God does, as an individual whose presence makes the whole stronger.
It takes time, it takes suspension of our natural tendency to jump to conclusions about people, visitors, members, lay leaders or colleagues, it takes openness to people who are not like me in one way or another – they have tattoos where I don’t, they see things in a different way, they need to ask questions which are not the same as mine of an issue.
Once we know truly someone in our community then we can judge their actions with love, speak honestly with them when their actions cause us pain, find the best in them and help their contribution to our shul build it ever stronger as a Kehillah Kedoshah, a community striving for holiness.
Rabbi Josh: These three core goals are 2,200 years old but as relevant today as they were then. And though this three is about to change, that three will continue to resonate here at Alyth, and we know with Rabbi Mark at his new home, too.
And as we move forwards we commit to continue to learn from one another, to work to still be friends, and to always judge one another according to our merits.