A True Friend: Lesson on Pirkei Avot

The rabbis put getting a teacher and acquiring a friend in one exhortation - might not the rabbis have confused the two?

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran,

Judaism Rabbi Dr. E.Safran
Rabbi Dr. E.Safran

True friends stab you in the front.

- Oscar Wilde

A man can have business associates he works closely with; men he knows will do the right thing so that all will profit handsomely.  A soldier can fight, knowing the soldiers around him can be trusted to “have his back.”  A doctor can perform intricate surgery, safe in the knowledge that the other doctors and nurses are performing their tasks to the highest level of their ability and that the patient is in good hands.

All successful relationships require a level of trust.  All successful relationships demand an investment of time.  All successful relationships rely on good communication.  But friendship is still a different matter entirely.  

The rabbis understood deeply the value of friendship.  In Pirke Avot (1.6), Yehoshua ben Perachya teaches that we are to, “Appoint a teacher for yourself; acquire a friend for yourself.” 

A teacher and a friend.  The value of each should be self-evident.  But the joining of them together is particularly insightful. 

“Appointing” a teacher for oneself brings with it obvious advantages over studying alone.  Having someone teach results in an exchange of ideas that cannot help but result in a clearer and deeper understanding of the material.  Having a teacher to explain ideas and issues that are difficult to grasp, or not fully understood, and to amplify the significance and meaning of the material not only sheds light on the immediate topic of study but also trains the student to develop an approach and methodology for future study. 

Just as “no man is an island” no student can learn as effectively alone as he can with a teacher.  Every student needs a mentor not only to engage him in the chain of tradition, but also, and equally worthwhile, to help him avoid errors and misunderstandings; to keep him from losing his way as he becomes engaged in the depths and complexities of knowledge.

It is no surprise that the rabbis are unanimous in encouraging every student to “make” a rebbe for himself.  The value of a teacher is, truly, self-evident.

But why “buy” a friend? 

Rav considers a friend so important that he explains that it is important to acquire a friend even if it involves great financial expense!  Wedding getting a teacher and acquiring a friend in one exhortation - might not the rabbis have confused the two?  After all, one would think that it makes more sense to “acquire” a teacher, not a friend!

After all, people hire teachers and tutors all the time.  But there is only so much that comes from the teacher-student relationship.  There is always a distinction between teacher and student.  This relationship comes with predetermined boundaries, distinctions, formalities and rules.

Even with the most brilliant and insightful student, the hierarchical difference between student and teacher can never be blurred.  A teacher cannot be “bought” or “acquired”.  For the relationship to be successful, the teacher must do more than simply “convey” knowledge and the student be more than a “passive vessel” receiving it.  They must “click” emotionally, temperamentally and more.   If they don’t, there is no buying the student. 

There are times and circumstances when a teacher is simply not available, or at least, one that is successful with a particular student.  At such times, a student is capable of learning by himself.  Indeed, many great scholars and gedolim never attended a formal yeshiva ...

A friend, however, is a different matter.  A man can live without a teacher, but to live without a friend…?  Our sages exclaim “o chavrusa, o misusa” – either friendship or death.   

From a good friend one can acquire and gain knowledge, morals, and advice.  A true friend can be counted on to lovingly critique behavior, display tolerance, and demonstrate love, loyalty, confidence.  A good friend will accept you for who you are, not who the world expects you to be.   A friend provides you with all the tools necessary to live a decent, meaningful, and productive life.

Isn’t that worth the investment? 

But what of the individual who finds it nearly impossible to relate to either a teacher or a friend.  What’s left for him?

The  Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Chaim Shmulevitz suggests our Pirkei Avot instruction to acquire a friend refers not only to the friend we may seek in school, office or park but  also to building and developing harmonious relationships with one’s spouse.  When husband and wife have mutual respect and love for each other, understand and recognize one another’s virtues, then a man’s spouse can indeed be the most honest, caring, and loyal friend. 

And the more each spouse invests in this singular relationship, the greater the daily profits and benefits… such a spouse can indeed be a teacher and friend – for the price of one !

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer.