As we explored in last week’s column, in Avot 2:9 Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his students to “go forth and observe which is the right way to which a man should cleave.” If you were a student in that classroom, how would you understand the question? How would you go about researching and formulating your answer? What answer would you give?
From our perspective, the question may seem vague. What exactly is Rabbi Yochanan asking? Rabbeinu Yonah assumes that he is asking his students for the ultimate character trait – the one that, if perfected, will have spillover effects, impacting all the other ones positively. Rambam seems to understand the assignment as asking for a meta-principle, an overarching concept that will influence all character growth. Rabbi Moshe Schick (19th century) suggests that just like we find in the Talmud that the rabbis grouped ideas together, creating categories that help with memory and understanding, so too Rabban Yochanan wanted his students to think through character traits in terms of categories. What is the one trait that, when recalled, will help us act appropriately in all situations?
From a completely different angle, although coming to a similar conclusion, Professor Yair Furstenberg (2019) of Hebrew University, compares and contrasts Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s approach with the Stoic philosophers from the same time period, and assumes that Rabbi Yochanan was looking for a governing principle for choosing the right path, encouraging his students to create a taxonomy of virtues and vices, with the ultimate goal of identifying a sole principle and creating a unity of virtues.
Moving from analyzing the question to understanding the answers, let’s review what Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s students said:
Rabbi Eliezer said: a good eye; Rabbi Joshua said: a good companion; Rabbi Yose said: a good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said: foresight… Rabbi Elazar said: a good heart. He [Rabbi Yochanan] said to them: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach, for in his words your words are included.
While we may have an intuitive sense as to what all these answers represent, when we think through the mishna more critically, the answers need elaboration. As we will see, there is no real consensus in the commentaries as to what each one of these terms means, and to a large extent this is due to the changing conceptions of these terms throughout history.
There is a burgeoning field of study called History of Emotions, which investigates how different cultures during various time periods experienced emotions. One of the pioneers of the field, French historian Lucien Febvre, argued in 1938 that it is important not to commit psychological anachronisms, assuming that our psychological experiences and the terms we use to depict our inner lives are the same as in the past. He was critical of psychologists in his time who nonchalantly interpreted historical figures using contemporary psychological assumptions. While he was concerned with the field of history, we could easily apply the same concern to Torah texts. If we impose our own psychological assumptions onto our text, we will likely misunderstand the original message.
To demonstrate this confusion, let us begin to analyze the last answer. What does it mean to have a good heart? It is common in the modern era to associate the heart with emotions, and contrast that with the mind, which represents thought. However, these symbolisms were likely not present during the times of Tanach or the Mishna.
The word lev (literally “heart”) in Tanach can denote a host of internal and external psychological characteristics, not just emotion. Depending on the context, it can also mean thoughts, will, memory, conscience, character, and mental states. Some Biblical scholars caution not just to avoid assuming lev means emotions, but also not to fall into the trap of projecting the modern understanding of these other psychological constructs onto the text without carefully analyzing the word in context (Lambert, 2016). Similar to Tanach, the Talmudic sages also don’t use the word lev to just mean emotions. It can also mean knowledge, thought, intention, or inclination (see Margolin 2021). Consequently, when Rabbi Elazar says the right path is “a good heart,” we need to question any automatic associations we may have with love or emotions.
So what does Rabbi Elazar mean when he says “a good heart”? Due to the methodological challenges, it will be difficult to give a conclusive answer, although it will be illustrative to see the array of answers the commentaries provide. One clue internal to the text is to take at face value Rabbi Yochanan’s comment, that the first four answers are in some way subsumed under “a good heart,” such that the definition would have to account for that fact. Consequently, before seeing how the commentaries explain “a good heart,” let us first explore what these other terms mean.
The vagueness of the term “good eye” to the modern mind is a good indication of the problem of anachronism. The term “good eye” generally is used in contemporary times as an ability to notice or recognize something subtle, like fashion, talent, or the strike zone in baseball. Most medieval commentaries on the Mishna understand a good eye to revolve around putting a positive spin on personal or social situations. According to Rambam, it means to be satisfied with one’s lot. Focusing on how that manifests socially, Meiri writes that we should be happy when good things befall others. This love for others is the foundation for all the other traits. Formulating the same idea in the negative, Sforno says that we shouldn’t be envious of others’ success. Rabbeinu Yonah takes a fundamentally different approach, understanding a good eye as the trait of magnanimity, which is not just an internal state but requires acting benevolently towards others.
Good Friend & Good Neighbor
Commentaries differ as to whether these two answers mean to cling to a good friend or neighbor, which would be advocating for the importance of generating a positive social atmosphere, or whether it means to have the traits that will allow us to be a good friend or neighbor (Rabbeinu Yonah). Assuming the former, Meiri explains that a good friend will offer advice and guidance to us and will give us proper rebuke if we veer off the right path. Sforno adds that a good friend will serve as a role model and inspire us to good behavior. A good neighbor, Rashi writes, can be even more important than a good friend. Because of their proximity, we spend more time with them, which can yield a greater influence. Similarly, Meiri suggests that they can provide the same benefits of a friend in terms of advice and rebuke, but they also provide a moral check because they can observe our behavior even at home.
To have foresight requires us to think through our actions before committing to them, predict the consequences, and then decide if it is indeed worth following through. This is generally good life advice, but can be particularly helpful in preventing us from sinning (Meiri), as well as avoiding choices which have short-term reward but long-term consequences (Rabbeinu Yonah).
Given the several possible definitions of heart and the variety of explanations of the previous four traits, it should be of little surprise that there is no consensus as to what having a good heart entails. Rambam, following the biological, philosophical, and psychological underpinnings he outlines in his introduction to Avot, writes that the heart is literally the place in the body that contributes to character and virtue (“All of the character virtues are only found in the appetitive section of the soul… And so [too] is it known among the philosophers and physicians that the appetitive soul is in the heart and [that] its chamber and its instruments are attributed to the heart”). Hence, having a good heart indicates having virtuous character, which according to Rambam means following the middle path of moderate actions within all traits. This meta-principle encompasses all the other answers, as it is the standard which guides all other attributes.
Rabbeinu Yonah disagrees with Rambam because, as mentioned above, he assumes that the answer must be a specific trait, not an overarching principle. He therefore writes that a good heart means being patient and not easily angered. This is the most important virtue as it will impact the other traits positively as well. Other explanations include: having good intentions in all actions towards others and G-d (Raavan); being self-sacrificing, within limits (Rabbeinu Bechaye); and having keen intellectual skills (Abarbanel).
While it is easy to get lost in the variety of answers both from the students and the commentaries, in conclusion, I would like to suggest that perhaps the inherent vagueness of the question and the plethora of approaches provided motivates the individual in each era to take the overall principles and seek a successful path that helps him or her to inculcate refined character. The ultimate goal is to lead a virtuous life. It is up to us to utilize the messages and morals of our tradition and effectively adapt and apply them to our own lives.