Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Striking a Balance - When is Close too Close?

Originally published 7/17/07, 12:45 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
  1. Given the text below, when is close too close for comfort?
  2. Can one generate a warm relationship between student and mentor without becoming too
  3. Is it appropriate for a "rebbe" to maintain a distance?
  4. Should this distance include a "coolness", or should it remain warm but distant
  5. What happens when a Mentor is close but wants to give mussar?
  6. What happens when a student oversteps his bounds and plays the role of "buddy"?
  7. When is it OK for a rebbe resort to tactics such as nidduy?
  8. When is it OK for a student/Talmid to demand that his rebbbe stop picking on him?
  9. And how should a Talmid approach his rebbe when the student is indeed well within his rights to tell him off?

They each said three things: Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own; do not be easily angered; and repent one day before your death. And warm yourself beside the fire of the Sages; but beware of their glowing coals lest you be burned, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like coals of fire.
They - the above mentioned disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, said three things - i.e., taught three ethical doctrines, as follows: Rabbi Eliezer - ben Hyrkanus, said: Let the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own - do not insult your friend just as you do not want others to insult you. Furthermore, if someone offends your friend, consider the matter as if your own honor has been tainted (Midrash Sh'muel). On the other hand, if your friend is honored, welcome it as though you yourself had been honored (Notzer Hesed). Do not be easily angered - do not be impulsive and readily provoked, for anger breeds sin and disrespect for one's companion, as they said, (Pes. 66b): "Whoever is prone to anger - if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy disowns him." Moreover, (Ned. 22b): "Whoever is prone to anger, forgets his learning and grows ever more foolish, as it is said (Eccl. 7:9): "Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry, for anger rests in the bosom of fools."
And repent one day before your death - in Avot de Rabbi Natan we read: "The disciples of Rabbi Eliezer asked him: But does a man know on which day he will die, that he may repent? He said to them: That is all the more reason to repent today, lest he die tomorrow; repent tomorrow, lest he die the day after; thus throughout all his life he will be in a state of repentance." The Gemara (Shab. 153a) adds: "And Shlomo, too, said in his wisdom (Eccl. 9:8): 'Let your garments always be white; and let not your head lack ointment.' Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said: This recalls the parable of a king who invited his servants to a feast, but did not appoint a time. The intelligent ones adorned themselves and sat at the door of the palace, saying: Is anything lacking in the royal palace? (The invitation might come at any time). The foolish ones went about their work, saying: Can there be a feast without preparations? Suddenly, the king summoned his servants. The intelligent entered the palace wearing their ornaments, whereas the foolish entered filthy. The king rejoiced at the intelligent, and frowned at the foolish."
And warm yourself beside the fire of the Sages - this statement, made in addition to the three things, has been interpreted as follows: When learning Torah from the Sages, draw near and listen to their words, like one who approaches a fire in order to warm himself, but beware of their glowing coals lest you be burned - just as you cannot draw too near to a fire, lest you touch the coals and get burned, so also keep a safe distance from the Sages, lest you slight their honor and incur punishment, for their bite is the bite of a fox - which is difficult to heal; their sting is the sting of a scorpion - which is painful and poisonous, and their hiss - the speech of the Sages is the hiss of a serpent - the saraf, a venomous snake, which hisses when injecting its poison.
And all their words are coals of fire - hence the need for utmost vigilance. At times, the injury is as tangible as a bite, like that of a fox; at times, the injury is more superficial, like a sting, albeit that of a scorpion which is painful; and on other occasions their reaction is limited to harsh words, resembling the hiss of a serpent. These are metaphors for niddui, herem, and shamta (various degrees of excommunication imposed by the Rabbis - see Tosefot Yom Tov).
Some commentaries explain that the opening clauses of the Mishnah: Let the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own, and do not be easily angered complement one another, and jointly represent the first of the three things taught by Rabbi Eliezer. Thus, to ensure that your friend's honor remains as precious to you as your own, you should avoid anger; lest you will slight his status. And conversely, if your friend's honor is precious to you, you will not readily lose your temper with him.


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I find it interesting that the mishna is directing the motivations of the student -- attempt to "warm yourself by the fire", ie. develop a relationship, but "beware of the glowing coals", also maintain a distance. This reflects the duality of love and awe which is also reflected in our relationship with God. It is a challenge.

But it is strange that we are not told of the emotions to be expected from the teacher. We are not told, as teachers, how to relate to students. From this mishna, the direction in on the student as to how to approach the teacher. We are not told how the teacher is to respond.

Rabbi Richard Wolpoe said...

Re: Rabbi Hecht's comments...
Perhaps, bottom line, the obligation is after all upon the student to be wary, and that there is no particular style or approach incumbent upon the teacher, except to forewarn a student when he is either "too close for comfort" or too distant and cool to learn to grow


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Ah, the great dilemma of the rebbi telling the talmid about how to relate to him. This is perhaps the most difficult function in all of Torah -- a Rabbi telling others how they are suppose to relate to him. Invariably, those listening do not see these instructions as Torah directives as much as any other Torah directive but interpret them in the subjective -- he doesn't like me, he is so egotistical, he is trying to control me. How does a rebbi get through to a talmid?