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Chapter 1, Mishna 6: “…Acquire for yourself a friend…”
Rabbeinu Yona, in explaining the language of ‘acquire’ with regards to a friend, cites an interesting verse from Proverbs: “One who covers an offense, seeks love, but one who harps on the matter alienates a ruler.” (17:9) Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, explains that if one sins to another and doesn’t tell him he sinned nor shows anger towards him, he will cause the sinner to love him. But if he holds on to the enmity and keeps reminding the sinner of the sin, then even close friends will separate from him. Rashi goes further by adding that the ‘Ruler of Above’ will separate from him since he violated the commandment of “You shall not take revenge nor bear a grudge” (Leviticus 19:18)
Rabbeinu Yona gives a different interpretation of the verse. He says that the verse means that if a friend covers up another’s sins, then the love between them will last because he tolerates the sins. However, if a friend says something bad about him and he tells others, “Look at what he said about me” then his friends will separate from him.
According to Rabbeinu Yona the verse is describing what we would call a petty relationship. People won’t look past the fact that this person is making a mistake by telling others about another person. The correct perspective, as we mentioned previously, is that there is only one criterion for a friendship: whether it is beneficial. One should not get caught up in the petty emotions and mistake them for a person’s essence. The essence of a person is deeper than that, so that if there is what to be gained, one should look past these smaller issues.
Rashi’s explanation of the verse goes further by saying that the gossiper is bearing a grudge, using his friend’s imperfections for his own advantage and not recognizing his own imperfections. This is against reality and so it is against God. Here again, man indulges his petty emotions, and misjudges man’s essence.
With regards to the issue of revenge and bearing a grudge, there is an interesting Rambam that discusses these prohibitions. In his Laws of Traits (Chapter 7, law 7) the Rambam writes: “One who takes revenge has a bad trait for he should be a person who foregoes his own rights since they are just over matters of this world and those with proper understanding see that things of this world are worthless, so they won’t have feelings for revenge.” The Rambam is telling us that it is because people put a value on things in this world that causes them to feel that their happiness is being taken away when deprived of these things. In truth, what was taken away in this world was nothing, so one should not feel as if there was any harm done.
We may ask on the Rambam: what about the fact that the person tried to harm us? Doesn’t that warrant some reaction? Furthermore, what if someone would take away time from learning-that isn’t just a matter of this world, so would revenge then be justified? It seems as if it would have been simpler for the Rambam to just say that there is nothing to gain by revenge, and that would have been the end of it.
The idea behind the Rambam’s explanation goes deep into the mindset of how one relates to other people. We all realize that we are in need of various goods from others, and so we need friends. As a result, we divide others into two groups - friends and enemies. Enemies get in the way of what is good for us so we try to get rid of them. This is where revenge comes from - this person tried to take away my goods so I need to destroy him in return. The Rambam is saying that a correct thinker understands that there is no need to make this division of friends and enemies because the real good is perfection, and that is a good, which is achieved, independent of others. Once one realizes that others cannot give him the real good, nor take it away, then one will be neutral to such situations. There should be no desire for revenge because one person can never truly harm another.
This idea can be seen in the story of Joseph and his brothers. After Jacob dies, Joseph tells the brothers that they should not worry that he would take revenge on them for what they did. He explains that all that occurred was from God and that God had prevented any harm from being done to him. With this response, Joseph was saying to his brothers that Divine Providence was the controlling factor in the situation and as a result there he harbored no personal feelings. He related to them without hatred for what they had tried to do, because he knew they could not benefit or harm him - only Divine Providence could. Therefore he would not retaliate against them.
Yet, the idea of the Rambam requires further clarification. If there is no reason for revenge in case of worldly matters, what about when one tries to take away your opportunity for the next world, the true good? For example, would one be justified in taking revenge on another who took away time from learning?
The issue here concerns how one relates to the true good. Most people redirect their materialistic emotions and attach them to Torah. They simply swap the object of their desires. They fail to understand that the object of their attachments can not be the only thing that is different - it must be a different relationship. If one learns so as to become a great Torah scholar then he is replacing money with Torah. When one is interested in a life of perfection, he isn’t interested in any status. The Talmud, in Tractate Berachos, tells us of a discussion that took place when Rabbi Yochanon visited Rabbi Eliezer who was sick. Rabbi Eliezer was crying so Rabbi Yochanon asked him why he cried. He continued, “if because you didn’t learn enough Torah, then that is not a problem for “whether one has a lot or a little, as long as his heart is towards heaven”. At first glance, the consolation of Rabbi Yochanon seems difficult to understand: is he saying that how much one knows doesn’t matter? There is a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud that says one word of Torah is worth as much as all the commandments! To be continued.