The Right Balance

Avot (3:12) | Yisrael Bankier | 9 years ago

The Mishnah teaches (3:12):

R’ Yishmael said, be kal (light/swift) to the rosh (head), affable to the tishchoret (young) and receive everyone with happiness.

What does this Mishnah mean and what is R’ Yishmael teaching us?

The Bartenura explains that the focus of this Mishnah is interpersonal relationships. The Abrabanel explains that earlier we learnt that “Anyone who is pleasing to his friend is pleasing to Hashem” while the same is true in the reverse. The Mishnayot that followed dealt with characteristics and actions that impact negatively on relationships. R’ Yishmael therefore follows with those things that foster good relationships.

When someone encounters a “head”, an important person, the Bartenura explains that one should be light and swift to attend to their needs. Similarly the Tifferet Yisrael explains that one should consider themselves as being like light dust and not consider themselves as being amongst his peers. One could however meet a tishchoret. The Bartenura explains that this refers to someone who is young (whose hair is still shachor – black) and one should be patient and easy to towards them. The Tifferet Yisrael explains that the word tishchoret means tax. Consequently even when one engages with someone of a lower level, even if he need pay you tax, you should treat him with love and be humble in his presence.

There are a number of interpretations that maintain that the Mishnah has a very different focus. The Midrash Shmuelcites R’ Yisrael who maintains that the “Rosh” in the Mishnah refers to Hashem. Consequently the Mishnah begins by teaching that one should swift to fulfill the word of Hashem. The Mishnah however continues, that sometimes life may be difficult and dark. Nevertheless one should be still be calm and worship Hashem with all his heart. Finally the R’ Yishmael warns that if someone approaches you, even in the difficult times, you should receive him with happiness.

The Magen Avot explains that the Rosh refers to one’s spiritual interests. The word tishchoretis associated with the word shachvar, meaning captain. This refers to the body, whose needs being satisfied, supports the soul. Consequently the Mishnah teaches that one should primarily be swift to satisfy his spiritual needs and temper his physical ones. Despite the weighting, one should nevertheless accept “kol adam”, both spiritual and physical pleasure with happiness.

The Magen Avot provides another explanation in a similar manner. R’ Yishmael had argued with R’ Shimon ben Yochai regarding whether to combine Torah with Derech Eretz with R’ Yishmael arguing in its favour. Here R’ Yishmael elaborates on his position. The prime focus should be Torah which impacts on the head, the spiritual needs. Material needs however, should be considered relaxed and secondary in focus. He finishes that one should accept everyone with happiness, even those engaged in work, for work is what we are a meant to be doing.


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