Rebbi says: which is the straight path that a person chooses for himself?
One which is an honor to the person adopting it, and [on account of which] honor [accrues] to him from others (Avot 2:1).
As we saw last time, Rebbi Yehudah HaNasi asks: “what is the straight path that a person should choose?” His answer focuses on one word: “tiferet.” Tiferet means more than just beauty; it connotes a harmonious balance between differing ideas or components. What different components should comprise the tiferet of one’s life path?
Rebbe’s answer delineates two types of tiferet: “l’oseha” and “min ha’adam.” Let us explore each of these.
“Tiferet lo min ha’adam” means that others perceive our path as beautiful. People naturally see their own path positively; others seeing it that way is critical confirmation.
Many mishnayot in Avot convey the importance of how others perceive us. Mishna 4:13 quotes Rebbi Shimon, who rates the “crown” of a “good name” as greater than all other crowns (Torah, malchut, and kehuna). Rav Chanina Ben Dosa (Avot 3:10) goes even further by asserting that Hashem is comfortable only with those who other people are comfortable with as well. One who only performs mitzvot bein adam l’Makom, focusing solely upon his relationship with Hashem, is not just insensitive towards other people; he lacks a meaningful relationship with Hashem as well.
But this is only Rebbi’s second stated criteria; his first one is: “tiferet l’oseha.” Who is the “oseha” that Rebbi is referring to?
Most meforshim understand the word oseha as referring to the person himself. In addition to others finding a person’s life beautiful, Rebbi believes that our path in life needs to resonate with our own selves. The way we live needs to be a true expression of our unique character and (thus) destiny.
According to this understanding, Rebbi’s full statement teaches that one’s life needs to be beautiful to both oneself and to others.
Balance – The Middle Path
Many rishonim understand Rebbi as addressing an additional issue: the balance between ourselves and others. There is a natural tension between our focus upon our own needs and goals and our caring for and assistance to others. Rebbi’s point is that we need to strike the right balance between these (often) competing values.
The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 1:4) gives the example of the need to find the middle ground between being miserly and being irresponsibly altruistic. Though we need to be charitable, we should prioritize taking care of ourselves and our own families. This is what the Rambam calls the “derech ha’emtzai (the balanced path)” where both ideals are appreciated and integrated harmoniously. This, explains the Rambam and others, is what Rebbi means when he says that the straight path is one that is beautiful both for oneself as well as for others. The Machzor Vitri connects this to the previous mishna’s (Avot 1:18) theme of the importance on the one hand of emet and mishpat, and shalom on the other – both must coexist together.
The problem with this interpretation is that the word oseha is a strange way to describe oneself. For this reason, many commentaries prefer a different girsa (text) of the mishna that reads “osehu.” This version emphasizes the importance of one’s path being beautiful in the eyes of “the one who made us” – Hashem.
It is understandable that we would use our Creator’s perspective to validate our life’s path. We ought to aim to achieve the destiny we were created to realize. There is no greater authority on this matter than Hashem – our Creator.
Rebbi Yochanan also used our Creator as his yardstick in his famous words: “Ashrei mi … she’amalo baTorah v’oseh nachat ruach l’yotzro.” Happy is the one involved in Torah who gives nachat to his Creator (Masechet Berachot 17a). If Hashem has nachat from us, we know that we are living up to our “factory settings.”
Hashem’s opinion about our lives is particularly relevant to determining the “derech yeshara” Rebbi asked about. As Hashem is the model for the very concept of yashrut, it makes sense that He would be the one to determine whether we are achieving it.
The Eyes of G-d and Man
According to this interpretation, Rebbi’s full statement emphasizes the importance of man’s path being beautiful in the eyes of both G-d and of man. We find this idea in many places in Tanach (See Bamidbar 32:22) and in the words of chazal (see Pesachim 13a and Yoma 38a). The Gra connects our mishnah to the famous pasuk (we quote at the end of our bentching) which encourages man to “find favor and appear wise in the eyes of G-d and man.” (Mishlei 3:4)
Beautiful All Around
If we combine the two versions of the mishnah, we derive the importance of three different perceptions: how G-d perceives us, how society perceives us and how we perceive ourselves. The straight path is one viewed by all three as beautiful and harmonious.