Teacher, Friend, Merit

Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Provide yourself with a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man on the scale of merit. (m.Avot 1:6)

These three things are areas in which I would imagine most people fall short. Let’s touch on these briefly.

Provide yourself with a teacher

Being nearly two thousand years removed from the faith of Yeshua and his talmidim (disciples), we honestly do not have an idea of what it means to be a disciple or student. In modern times, a student is a single person in a sea of classmates; a teacher is a distant authoritarian to guide you through a textbook. We just don’t have the concept of a student-teacher relationship like we find in the Biblical period. During these times, especially within first century Judaism, a rabbi would take on a few students and spend a great deal of time with them. He would pour into them his great wealth of knowledge and provide a living example for his students on how to properly live out the mandates of the Torah. “The master teacher was a mentor whose purpose was to raise up disciples who would not only memorize his teachings but also live out the teachings in practical ways.”1

From those students there would be those who would excel and shine a little brighter than the rest. Like the fat from milk, the cream would rise to the top—not to dominate, but to be proven as worthy successors, who would take the mantel from their rabbi and pass it to the next generation. From there the student-teacher relationship was further bonded, and all that the rabbi could pour out was lapped up by his student. In Western culture and in our spiritual heritage, we have massive gaps in the wisdom of one generation to the next. We have arrogance and pride as the chasm between the younger and the older. We are “wise in our own eyes” according to Scripture, in that we literally believe we cannot be taught. We are self-made, self-taught, and self-destructive. However, we must realize our need for the counsel and instruction of our elders, specifically a teacher who is wise in the ways of the LORD that can pour into us the wisdom that only comes through experience—not theory. Yeshua gives us a great example of this student-teacher relationship. He has literally thousands of disciples, but he has only twelve that he is with day in and day out. Within those twelve, he has three with whom he is closest. He revealed his soul to these three only. He took them to the Mountain of Transfiguration (Matthew 17) where his mission was sanctioned by his Father in the presence of these three witnesses. They were close enough to Yeshua to share in his most wonderful and most painful experiences of life. As Brad Young notes, “Jesus developed a mentoring relationship with his disciples who learned his teachings by heart and followed his example as apprentices. Jesus' teaching techniques have deep roots in the rich soils of Jewish education and Torah training.”2 Both becoming a disciple and submitting to a teacher are ways in which we can follow our Master today.

Acquire for yourself a friend

In the west, we truly do not have an understanding of camaraderie. We are a lonely people, an isolated people. We have a shallow definition of friendship, and are threatened by the thought of needing another person—especially that of the same sex. We take pride in the fact that we don’t ‘need’ anyone. We are an island to our own. But Scripture teaches us that “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). You see, without others, we cannot be sharp. We can never be the scalpel in the hand of the Father. We will always be the butterknife in the wound. Without others who are close enough to us to smooth out our roughness, we will always be “rough around the edges.” We will always be abrasive with those to whom we come in contact. We will always be the “diamond in the rough,” so to speak—never being polished to our potential radiance and beauty. I cannot count the number of times in which I have attempted to dialogue with others in regard to Scriptural interpretation and have been stone-walled by the argument, “I don’t need anyone to tell me what the Scriptures mean. I have the Holy Spirit to guide me.” Unfortunately, many believe we have fully entered into the Messianic Era in which the New Covenant is entirely realized. We boast of living in a time in which the prophecy of Jeremiah has been fulfilled, saying “no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother.” However, we fail to understand the complete passage, which says, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:34). We have not yet arrived at a time in which “all” of Israel knows the LORD, “from the least of them to the greatest.” Although the New Covenant has been initiated by Yeshua, the Messiah, we still await its complete fulfillment.

If we don’t have others in our lives, many of us become Scripture-snipers. What is a Scripture-sniper? Scripture-snipers use the Scriptures to wound and kill others without ever a care for them while they hide in the shadows. This has been increasingly common with the advent of the Internet. Since we are able to hide behind a computer screen, an avatar and a screen name, we come out with our guns blazing. We destroy those with whom we disagree with our theological dogma and absolutes, rather than encourage their spiritual metamorphosis with our love. The old adage is definitely true that people “don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” By not “acquiring for yourself a friend,” as a study partner and a true confidant, you not only deprive others from what you have to offer, but deprive yourself from your full potential as well.

Judge every man on the scale of merit

And lastly, we have the statement that ties the two previous ones together. We are to “judge all men (yes, women as well) on the scale of merit.” But what does this mean? I understand it to mean something similar to what Yeshua said in his sermon on the Mount:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:1-6)

In this passage, we hear Yeshua admonishing his disciples on the subject of judgement & correction. Too often we hear “Do not judge!” But we don’t understand the application. We must realize that not only are we supposed to judge (1 Corinthians 5 is a good example of this), but we must do so accurately and for the benefit of the other person — not for our personal convenience or comfort, and especially not for self-justification. When Yeshua instructs us not to judge, he is not negating our responsibility to discern the deeds of others as being either righteous or less than righteous, but rather that we should not be quick to jump to conclusions and condemn the person without a fair and thorough investigation. This is why he tells us “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” If we are quick to condemn others, we will quickly be condemned. If we judge people with fairness and optimism, the same will be shown to us. This is why we must first “remove the plank” in our own eye (i.e. make sure we don’t hypocritically cast judgment upon others while we, ourselves, are justifying our own sin) before we come to our brother in correction. This is the point of our mishnah. To judge a person “on the scale of merit” means that we judge with love, just as the Apostle Paul reminds us:

[Love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:6–7)

If we truly love a person, we will not delight in knowing they have done evil, nor will we assume the worst regarding them. We will protect them and their integrity by not listening to gossip without getting the facts directly from the one accused. We will trust that Hashem is doing a work in their lives, rather than forsaking them at a moment’s notice. We will realize that we are all growing, maturing, learning and believe that somehow this circumstance is possibly a misunderstanding of the facts. We will persevere in loving the accused (even if it is ‘tough love’ that has to distance them for a season) through their accusation until their restoration. Lastly, I have never heard the last section of Yeshua's teaching on judging (regarding dogs, pearls and pigs) associated with the previous two sections. It has always been taught as a separate thought or idea. However, as upon examination of this text, it seemed clear that this was indeed a continuation of the instructions regarding judgement. In the same way we must be cautious to accuse someone of wrong doing, we must also be cautious of bringing a word of correction to someone who is not ready to receive it. Proverbs tell us:

Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:7-8)

If the person truly has a heart for the Father, your (gentle) rebuke will only draw him to t’shuva (repentance). If he is bent on going his own way, your rebuke will only receive criticism. Proverbs puts this another way by saying,

Why should a fool have money in his hand to buy wisdom when he has no sense? (Proverbs 17:16)

Isn’t this exactly what Yeshua is saying? This is indeed casting our pearls before swine. Therefore, let us judge all men in love, and use wisdom in our correction.

  • 1. Brad H. Young, Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus (Hendrickson Publishers, 2007-06-30), 30-31.
  • 2. Ibid., 29.