One of the things I tell my children all the time is that they should find a teacher and find a friend.
This originally came about as one of my sons found himself a friend, even though that friend wasn’t always leading him in the right direction; I used this dictum to remind myself that the friendship was the more important thing.
I’ve recently done some more research on this concept, because I think it’s important that I understand it more so that I can apply it more properly, and help my children do so as well.
The full statement is in Mishnah Pirkei Avot, 1:6:
Joshua ben Perachyah and Nittai the Arbelite received the Torah from them. Joshua ben Perachyah said: Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.
R. Joshua and R. Nittai were נָשִׂיא, nasi, a pair of leaders of the Sanhedrin, roughly two centuries before Christ. The phrase “received the Torah from them” refers to the nasim from the previous line in Pirkei Avot (Yosi ben Yochanan, another nasi), and that line in Pirkei Avot has the same construct, all the way back to Moshe.
This construct therefore is asserting R. Joshua’s authority.
Then we have R. Joshua’s wisdom: “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.”
A teacher is one who is worthy of emulation and provides a measure to exceed.
I want to learn to be like my teacher, to be sure; otherwise, he is not my teacher, and I am not his student. (Perhaps we’re friends?)
Yet I wish to be a student who is able to teach some day as well; I don’t want to equal my teacher, I want to excel beyond him. I want to add to the world, not meet it; I want to grow and challenge, not exist.
Finding a teacher is a great challenge. Finding one who has more wisdom might be easy, as in my case – I’m not very wise – but in addition to wisdom, you should find one who is worthy.
No man is perfect, of course, in faith or in life. Here you must examine your own values and responses, to find a teacher whom you are able to respect.
A friend is one from whom you can learn, and whom you can correct.
A friend is more valuable than a teacher, because a friend is able to interact differently; a teacher reproves and instructs, but responds only from that perspective, while a friend allows more of a give and take, where you can have a discussion, and contribute.
A friend allows you to be who you are, and reflects you.
A man with bad friends is a man who needs help. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough (Galatians 5:9), which works in two ways:
- A good man among bad friends (friends of low character) can serve as a light to them, to raise them up.
- A good man among bad friends is also in danger of being corrupted by those friends.
Therefore, one can have bad friends, yet you should tread very carefully among them, such that you are not being misled by them – and note also that you will share their reproachfulness, which we are to avoid (1Tim 3:2, although this is an instruction for an overseer.)
Yet even this is dangerous and unfortunate. A friend is one with whom you can be yourself, being unguarded and authentic. Yet if you’re warding your heart against poor influences, you’re not unguarded.
Among bad friends, then, you need to rise above and beyond them, drawing them up with you.
Otherwise, you are one with them.
Judge every man toward merit
I love this sentiment.
This statement means to choose the best perception of everyone, until proven otherwise.
As a parent, this is difficult, because a child needs instruction, while judging him towards merit means assuming positive conclusions he may not actually deserve.
Sometimes, after all, the child actually lies, for example, as opposed to the more positive judgement that he “was mistaken in his mind.”
But again, the wisdom is in choosing the best every time it is possible to do so. Assuming the best means you have a joyous heart, seeing the glory of God in everything around you, and it gives those with whom you are something to attain.
It’s your positive assumption of them that sets a bar for them to meet.
And in doing so, you become a teacher, and a friend.