On this Shabbos, when we study the first chapter of Pirkei Avos, it would be appropriate to discuss a dictum of Avos much analyzed of late. The teaching ‘Provide yourself with a Rav (teacher)’ (Avos 1:6,16) is mentioned twice in this chapter.

The importance of having a good teacher manifests itself in many ways. The most obvious need for a Rav occurs when one is in doubt concerning a halachic ruling. He must then inquire of a knowledgeable and neutral Rav, and follow his directives. This is surely what the Mishnah means when it says: ‘Provide yourself with a teacher and free yourself of doubt.’ (loc. cit.)

With this in mind several questions emerge:

A — It seems strange that the rule to provide ourselves with a Rav is mentioned in Pirkei Avos. Clearly, this rule is so basic and fundamental, that we cannot properly observe Torah without it. If so, what is this rule doing in Pirkei Avos where we learn matters that deal with acts of greater piety? If you do not know the proper mode of conduct then by rule of law you must ask a Rav how to act. If, on the other hand, you know what to do, and you seek to act in a manner of greater piety, then you can choose what to do by your own initiative — why ask a Rav?

B — How will we explain the repetition of this rule in the first chapter of Avos where it is first mentioned in the teaching of R. Yehoshua b. Perachiah and then repeated in the aphorism of Rabban Gamliel?

In each case the directive appears to be applied in a different way. Rabbi Yehoshua b. Perachiah says: ‘Provide yourself with a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person favorably.’ (Mishnah 6) Rabban Gamliel starts off, ‘Provide yourself with a teacher,’ and then leads into: ‘Free yourself of doubt and do not tithe by guesswork....’ (Mishnah 16) This would seem to indicate that there are two different facets to the rule of providing a Rav.

C — How can we understand the association of the different interpretations to the sages who taught them?


The Rav as Guide and Mentor

Since Pirkei Avos deals with matters of greater piety, we must establish that the teaching, ‘Provide yourself a teacher,’ cannot refer to a case where there is basic ignorance of Halachah. Rather we are dealing with a situation where all conduct is in virtual accordance with Halachah. Theadvice of providing a Rav deals with a case where a Rav is needed to give us guidance in conduct beyond the requirement of the rule of law, in matters of greater piety.

When would this condition apply? Our sages advise us: ‘Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die.’ (Avos 2:4) This means that even when your condition in Divine service is proper and firm you should not be complacent. You must view the future with a degree of self-doubt and your attitude of piety will dictate that you should appoint a Rav for yourself to protect yourself against any possible failures in the future.

It must be kept in mind that this practice is purely in keeping with the emotion of extreme piety — beyond the rule of law — for in the normal course of events one should not fret over what may happen in the future.

Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai: A Pious View of the Future

A parallel analysis may be applied in the case of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai who on his death bed told his disciples that he did not know in which direction he would be led! Chassidus explains that although his life was devoted completely to Torah and mitzvos he was still not sure whether his inner soul powers had attained perfection through his earthly observance, so he fretted about the future.

During his lifetime he did not worry about this — he was constantly occupied and involved in his Torah study and his important work. At the end of his life, however, the thought came to him and troubled him: where was he actually headed?

Now, let us take note of the two contexts presented in the Mishnah for the directive, ‘Provide yourself a Rav,’ and we will see that in actuality there are two facets to this sound advice.

A Jew among Jews

The first presents us with a directive for every Jew in his relationship with all other Jews. It advises us to provide ourselves with a teacher as part of a broader approach to all our fellow Jews. Specifically:

1. ‘Look up to those Jews who are on a higher level than yourself as you would to a Rav, learn from them and follow their teachings.

2. Here the Mishnah goes on to speak of how to relate to our peers. ‘Acquire for yourself a friend.’ Associate with other Jews by joining them in Torah study. This friendship will also be helpful in your Divine service, for you will be able to engage two Yetzer Tovs (good inclination) against one Yetzer Hora (evil inclination). In this context acquiring a friend might sometimes be a requirement according to Halachah, yet here it is surely an act of piety, to always be associated with friends.

3. The third statement in the Mishnah to ‘judge every person favorably,’ clearly relates to those Jews who are on a lower level. It tells us that we must nevertheless always judge every Jew in a favorable light. Thus we have an all-encompassing philosophy, which delineates a clear approach to all types of Jews.

To Serve G‑d Correctly

In the second Mishnah which teaches this rule, Avos tells the person to look into himself; by following the advice of a disinterested Rabbi he will be saved from ignorance and indecision.

Again, although at the moment he has no uncertainties, he should consider that something may come up in the future and the attribute of piety demands that he forestall any problems — so he must have a Rav.

‘Well,’ you might say, ‘who needs a Rav, in a case of doubt I will just follow the more stringent choice.’ Here the Mishnah says, ‘do not estimate your tithing,’ even if you will end up giving more. Such conduct is not for regular practice and it could bring bad results. Better to ask a Rav and do the proper thing, than to regularly opt for the more stringent choice out of ignorance.

We may also find a logical consistency with each Tanna who taught these rules.

The Gemara tells us that R. Yehoshua b. Perachiah tried to reach out and open the door for Yeshu to return to the fold. Yeshu Hanotzri had ‘worshiped a stone’ and had caused others to sin and turn away from G‑d. Nevertheless, R. Yehoshua b. Perachiah said to him ‘repent!’ and was ready to offer him a way back to G‑d by repenting in a manner of one who ‘pushes himself in.’ (see Sanhedrin 107b; Tanya ch. 25) Certainly this was in this spirit of his teaching ‘Judge every person favorably.’ And, similarly, he taught the importance of having a teacher and friends, for although he was the Nasi he still had a Rav of his own, and peer-friends.

Rabban Gamliel, on the other hand, lived at a time when there were many disagreements and disputes among the scholars, as the Gemara says (Sotah 47b): ‘When the students of Hillel and Shammai increased — many disputes arose.’

It is to them that Rabban Gamliel pleads: ‘Provide yourself with a teacher so that you will eliminate uncertainty’ and then there will be no more unnecessary disputes.