The title of this post is a bit limiting, as the genius of ALL of Pirket Avot is quite evident. The deep and practical knowledge goes so far beyond the six chapters that hold it. I would say that those six chapters cradle wisdom, and randomly picking any one of them, any teaching, will provide remarkable insight and a guide to live in the best way possible.
While I cannot always make it to the other side of the hill for the formal class, I find such great comfort in its teachings. So thanks to Howard Witkin, for the burger, the L’Chaim and the amazing life lessons you impart on so many every week.
“Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself (or make for yourself) a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.”
So like so much with Hebrew, the better the translation, the clearer this will be. Though this one is fairly straight forward. Master
Get a teacher. Do not study by yourself all the time. You need to have someone to ask questions of and bounce ideas off of. You need an “expert” and someone who is wiser than you are… so yes, humility may come into play. Howard said this should be one person, or at the least you should have one main person so you can have a consistency and clarity. I study with several different people and Rabbis and get a lot out of it, but I see his point.
According to Sefaria.org is says: “If one learns Torah from only one master, he never sees a sign of blessing,”… but in gemara (acquiring the “substance” itself), one master is preferable, to avoid differences in formulations of the same (oral learnings).”
You don’t want to confuse yourself, but I believe the more knowledge you have the better. I love the way that Yaakov Astor describes it on Aish.com:
“A rabbi is a human being like everyone else, but one whose vision has been sharpened with the lens of Torah. Judaism believes in a living tradition. A Torah scholar is not a professor in an ivory tower; he is an exceptionally learned person who has studied God’s will in-depth and knows how to properly and faithfully apply it in contemporary circumstances.
A rabbi does not necessarily know everything. This is why Yehoshua ben Perachiah tells us to “make” a rabbi, and not to merely “have” one.”
This should be a true friend, someone who will love and support you but tell you exactly how it is. Honesty and the truth are the most important things to pursue in life, and so you want a friend who will bring this to the table.
In today’s world we have many “friends” on social media. Too many kids base their self worth on “friends” and followers. This is not real. One true friend is worth more than a thousand fake ones, so like a teacher and mentor, we must choose wisely. And of course, we must be to our friend what they are to us. This is why he says to “acquire” a friend!
Astor continues when he says: “acquiring” implies paying the price, i.e. giving up something (including giving up something of oneself) to establish the bond of friendship.
An alternative translation might be “invest” in a friend. When you invest in something, you put a part of yourself into it. Securing the bond of true friendship is an investment.”
This also has a range of translations, though I think the simple and obvious one is also quite powerful. We must give people the benefit of the doubt, judge them on their actions, and try to see the best in people. This means that we need to take the time and put ourselves in another’s shoes and mind.
In his article, Astor shares this: “A great Chassidic rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua of Ostrov, offered a novel interpretation that is particularly relevant to the generations after the Holocaust. He suggests that judging others favorably includes G-d. When bad things happen to good people, do not assume G-d is somehow less than all-powerful or all good.”