The second perek of Avot discusses the question asked by Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai to his talmidim when seeking advice for the appropriate middot a person should strive to attain. His talmidim provide him with a range of answers including a good eye (R’ Eliezer), a good friend (R’ Yehoshua), a good neighbour (R’ Yossi) and realising the consequences of one’s actions (R’ Shimon). R’ Elazar though, gives the best advice in the eyes of his Teacher with his suggestion of a good heart, which as the Mishnah points out, includes all the other answers.
This exchange is followed by a discussion where R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai asks his Talmidim the opposite question, i.e. what are the middot that a person should distance himself from, and all his talmidim seem to give the converse answer to their original suggestions.1
Why does R’ Yochanan ask them about the negative middot when it seems quite obvious and logical that it should be the opposite of the good middot that one should strive to attain?
Rabbeinu Yonah suggests that it is not so evident that the opposing trait of each of the positive traits would be considered negative. There are a number of positive traits that exist where the opposite of that trait is not necessarily negative. For example, the middah of chasidut (saintliness) is usually demonstrated when one goes beyond the letter of the law. The opposite of chasidut would be where one behaves exactly as the Torah mandates. This is not a negative trait to have and should rather be the minimum expected in fulfilling avodat Hashem. It is for this reason and that the Rabbis were required to explicitly mention each middah, as it is not certain that the opposite of a positive middah necessarily equates to a negative trait. This is demonstrated in our Mishnah where the opposite of an “ayin tovah” is intuitively someone who is stingy (an ayin ra’ah), which is not necessarily against the strict letter of the law, and thus must be called out by R’ Eliezer as a negative middah.
The Magen Avot states that Rabban Yochanan needed to ask his Talmidim the opposite question because the achieving of the positive middot may be viewed as a goal that only a gadol and talmid chacham must strive to attain. These middot are all quite challenging to achieve and ‘regular’ laypeople may not be on the level required to reach these middot. Therefore, he asks his talmidim for their suggestions that people should distance themselves from - which is a more achievable task for the whole nation.
The Lev Avot explains that Rabban Yochanan wanted to demonstrate and make it clear to his talmidim the harm that can come to a person who displays bad middot and chases evil. Therefore, he made them articulate each of the positive attributes, and then reinforce the negative attributes in order that they should be aware of them explicitly, despite their inferred nature.
The Lev Avot adds that there are two requirements that allow a person to improve his middot. Not only must he work on his actions in a positive manner, he must also distance himself from all evil and negative attributes that may be blocking him from achieving spiritual growth. Therefore even though there may be many negative attributes that may influence a person, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai asked his students to provide him with the most extreme examples that a person should ensure distances himself from. It is these examples that are mentioned and which each talmid distanced themselves from, in order to assist in reaching the optimum opposing positive attribute.
This explanation of the Lev Avot follows a similar theme to that found in Tehillim Perek (34) which states “Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see goodness?... Separate from evil and do good”. It is not enough for a person to only work on only the positive attributes and to ignore the opposing negative traits, and vice versa. It is only by distancing from evil traits, and then working on the positive that true sustainable spiritual growth can be achieved. Perhaps, this is the lesson that Rabban Yochanan wanted to stress to his Talmidim, no matter how simple it may seem.
1 With the exception of R’ Shimon who seemingly provides an answer unrelated to his first suggestion, however some commentators including the Rambam seem to say that even this answer is the converse of his original answer
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