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Chapter 1, Mishna 6: “Yehoshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbeili accepted from them. Yehoshua the son of Perachia said: Make for yourself a Teacher, Acquire for yourself a Friend, and Judge everyone to the side of Innocent”
We last mentioned the two opinions mentioned by Rashi with regards to the meaning of ‘acquire a friend’. According to one opinion it means to learn with a book, whereas according to the other opinion it means that one should have an actual person to learn with. We wanted to understand the underlying issue in this disagreement: on what are these opinions arguing?
We mentioned last week that one should not learn alone because on his own, he may tend to say foolish ideas without realizing it. The question then becomes: what does a person need in order to keep his own theories “in check”? One possibility is that he merely needs other views to think about; this alone will challenge his mind to think and consider why another possibility is wrong, whereas his is correct. According to this possibility, it would be sufficient to learn with a book. Another possibility is that man needs more than that: he requires interactive thought to challenge him and sharpen his thinking. According to this, a person demands another person to interact with in the learning process.
The Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah make an interesting comment regarding the language of the Mishna: one should “acquire” a friend. They explain that to “acquire” a friend means to be willing to give up of one’s self in order to have the friend, even if it entails being embarrassed by him. At first glance, this statement is perplexing. What do they mean that one should give up of oneself for the friend? What kind of friendship is this?
To understand this comment, let us begin with how individuals generally relate to other people. An individual likes to maintain a positive self-image, feeling that he lives in a good and proper manner. However, this leads him to judge other people in order to maintain a sense of superiority that goes along with this positive self-image. He creates subjective criteria, based on his own personal life, through which he judges and reduces people, showing himself that he doesn’t partake of these ‘defects’. In this way, a person can live with a sense of comfort about his own lifestyle.
In truth, though, there is really not that much difference between the two people. His emotions find a method to elevate his self-image. Also, a process of exaggeration goes on: when “he” performs an injustice, it is not such a big deal, though, when “others” errs similarly, he emphasizes the gravity of their error.
The idea behind the comment of Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah is that one should not only recognize this framework within himself, but that other people have it as well. One must recognize that others have their subjective criteria as well. As the Rambam quotes from our Sages: “Don’t befriend another based on your own ways; but rather, based on the ways of the friend.” This means that a person has to recognize the framework within which another person functions, and generously operate accordingly.
In doing this, the individual demonstrates that these criteria are really not the essence of man. Friendships should not be based merely on shared likes and dislikes, and as such, one should do things that another likes even if he himself doesn’t. The Rambam even mentions that one should pay money for it. Here too, the idea is that if another person gains a psychological enjoyment through something you don’t, you should still help him obtain it and not feel that you are in any way superior just because you don’t have that emotion. If the friendship can benefit a person, then he should be willing to forego the petty emotions of likes and dislikes.
Such a notion of separating between personality traits and other traits is difficult for us today because of the Christian influence. Christianity maintains that the essence of a person is his psychological makeup, his instincts. Judaism says on the contrary, a person should use his instincts to perfect himself. This is seen in the statement of our Sages that a person with aggressive tendencies should become a slaughterer. As long as you can gain from the individual, then that is one who you should befriend.