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Crossing The Narrow Bridge, Ethics Of The Fathers 1:6

May 9, 2009 | by Yaakov Astor

What are friends and rabbis for?

Yehoshua ben Perachiah and Nitai HaArbeli received (Torah) from them. Yehoshua ben Perachiah said: "Make yourself a teacher; acquire a friend; and judge every person favorably."

Ethics of the Fathers 1:6

The Master of the Blind Wise Men asked his disciples to travel into the jungle to find out what is an elephant. Weeks later, the disciples returned. The first disciple said, "Master, an elephant is a thick, round object shaped like a tree trunk."

The next disciple said, "Master, I don't know what our colleague is talking about. An elephant is a long, skinny, leathery-type hose that blows water out of its end."

The third disciple then said, "Master, an elephant, in fact, is a flat paper-thin membrane that flaps up and down."

Finally, the fourth disciple said, "Master, none of them know what they are talking about. An elephant is an extremely thin whip-like object with some hairs at the end."

The master then told them they were all right and all wrong. Each of them had only described a part of the elephant.

We are those disciples. Each of us is a blind, subjective isolated ego, and this is one of the quandaries the teaching of our Mishnah comes to address: Since we are finite creatures -- each a veritable island unto himself -- how do we overcome the subjectivity inherent in our being?

The basic answer Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachiah comes to tell us is threefold: Get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and understand that surface appearances can be deceiving -- what you see is not necessarily what you get.


Rabbi Nachman of Breslov likened this world to a "very narrow bridge." Indeed, life is a series of dangerous crossings. We continually have important decisions to make. A wrong decision could prove disastrous, if not fatal.

And the bridge is not just any bridge, but a "very narrow" one. That's because as finite, subjective beings we are not only blind in many ways, but we often don't even realize it! We are doubly blind. Is there any hope to cross the "very narrow bridge" successfully?

The answer, of course, is yes. After acknowledging our inherent, unavoidable subjectivity, the next step is to find another person who is not blind, who can lead us across. That's what's at stake in seeking out a rabbi.

A rabbi is a human being like everyone else, but one whose vision has been sharpened with the lens of Torah. Judaism believes in a living tradition. A Torah scholar is not a professor in an ivory tower; he is an exceptionally learned person who has studied God's will in depth and knows how to properly and faithfully apply it in contemporary circumstances.

Although your rabbi may be lacking in some way, he still has something you don't: perspective on your problem.

A rabbi does not necessarily know everything. This is why Yehoshua ben Perachiah tells us to "make" a rabbi, and not to merely "have" one. Finding a rabbi doesn't necessarily come naturally. You may have to go out of your way to find (read: make) one. Or you may have found one who is good but limited in some way. Nevertheless, "make" him your rabbi because you need someone who can guide you and give you perspective. Although he may be lacking in some way, he still has something you don't: perspective on your problem. He is objective where you are subjective. And he has a combination of Torah knowledge and experience enough to lead you across the "very narrow bridge" of life.

The best type of rabbi is a mentor who can turn you into a mentor yourself, teaching you to think for yourself -- with perspective. Change the inflection of the Mishnah slightly and Yehoshua ben Perachiah's aphorism can read: Asei lach rav -- "Make yourself into a rabbi," i.e. your rabbi should be someone who helps you to grow into a person who can be a rabbi/mentor/teacher to others. That's a real mentor, not someone who has a crystal ball and tells you what to do.

The challenge in life is to find the objective truth and stick to it. The first step is to admit that you are not objective by yourself. The next step is to find a real mentor, a rabbi, not a crystal ball gazer. This mentor may be a human being with his own areas of blindness, but he is someone who can nevertheless help you see what you are blind to.


Friends are also vital to overcoming subjectivity. Authentic rabbis can be difficult to find, or too busy to help us with every little thing. A friend, on the other hand, is someone we typically spend a lot of time together with and will be attentive to even the smallest need.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachiah does not tell us simply to "have" a friend, but to "acquire" a friend. This also implies that true friendship does not necessarily come naturally. Something must be done to secure it. Indeed, in the simplest sense, "acquiring" implies paying the price, i.e. giving up something (including giving up something of oneself) to establish the bond of friendship.

An alternative translation might be "invest" in a friend. When you invest in something, you put a part of yourself into it. Securing the bond of true friendship is an investment. That's true even if there's a natural camaraderie to begin with. The difference between friends we eventually lose touch with and one we keep for life is typically the amount we invest in the friendship. Lifelong friends feel the bond even if they move to opposite sides of the world and speak only a couple of times a year because they invested in each other so profoundly they see themselves reflected in the other. The friend becomes a mirror of their own life and self.

Sometimes only a friend can save us from falling when we find ourselves teetering on the "very narrow bridge." So, invest in a friend -- buy that present, make that call, share that secret, etc. Your life depends on it.


The last part of the Mishnah, "Judge every person favorably," has a few interpretations. It can be teaching that in addition to a rabbi and a friend, you need others, i.e. "every person," in your life, and therefore judge them favorably.

Alternatively it could be referring to the way you should deal with your two primary others: a rabbi and a friend. 1 Sometimes our rabbi or best friend may do something that appears out of character. Nevertheless, the Mishnah exhorts, judge them favorably. 2 Do not assume the worst. You are probably missing the full picture.

The trick is to look at each person as an aggregate whole: a combination of good and bad who are decent human beings dealing with their life struggles just like you are.

The phrase could also mean "Judge the whole person [not every person] favorably." Even though each of us has our faults, the trick is to look at each person as an aggregate whole: a combination of good and bad, success and failure, who are, in the final analysis, decent human beings dealing with their life struggles just like you are.

A great Chassidic rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua of Ostrov, offered a novel interpretation that is particularly relevant to the generations after the Holocaust. He suggests that judging others favorably includes God. When bad things happen to good people, do not assume God is somehow less than all-powerful or all good. There are many books on the subject (I have a couple of chapters in my book, "Soul Searching"), but there is a particularly poignant midrashic teaching on this subject I would like to share.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was one of the great Talmudic sages, a man so holy he merited visitations from the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah). On one of those visits he asked to accompany the prophet on his wanderings to see how God's justice works.

"Banish such desires from your heart," Eliyahu answered him, "for you can neither grasp what I do nor be able to bear it."

"But," Rabbi Yehoshua replied, "Do I doubt God's justice? Am I not capable of recognizing His workings?"

He begged Eliyahu until he permitted him to follow, but not before the prophet warned, "You have to promise one thing: Do not question what you see. The second you question what I do you will no longer be allowed to travel with me."

"Agreed," Rabbi Yehoshua replied.

They set out the next day and at evening approached a small hut from which a poor peasant emerged. The peasant hurried to meet the two wanderers and invited them into his dwelling. He then offered them a seat while he fetched water so they could wash. The cupboards were bare but the wife insisted they eat the little food they had for themselves. So she set before them some fresh milk and bread.

When the prophet and the rabbi wanted to sleep, the man spread out his own blankets for them, then lay down beside his wife on the cold, bare dirt of the hut's floor. Rabbi Yehoshua's heart rejoiced over the hospitality of the poor couple, and he thought, Eliyahu would surely reward them, so that they would no longer have to spend their life in poverty.

However, when morning came, Eliyahu got up, whispered some words near the couple's lone possession, an emaciated cow, and watched it keel over and die. Rabbi Yehoshua stared in shock at the prophet! But Eliyahu looked at him sternly. The rabbi dared not say a word in question. The two then moved on, leaving the poor peasants to lament their loss.

The next evening they arrived at an exquisite, large mansion. They approached the owner to ask if they could rest under his roof. "Why should I bother with you beggars?" he scoffed. "You can sleep in the stable."

They settled down beside the animals, their hunger unsatisfied, their dusty feet unwashed. Anger stirred in Rabbi Yehoshua's heart, and he thought, Eliyahu would not let this hardhearted man go unpunished.

But Eliyahu awoke at dawn and went into the stable yard where a dilapidated wall leaned precariously. The prophet straightened the stones so that the wall stood firm again, with no threat of collapse. Watching, Rabbi Yehoshua thought Eliyahu is afflicting the good and showing favor to those whose deeds are evil. Is this justice?

But seeing the prophet's dark look, he suppressed his bitter questions, and the two went away from the grand house and passed another day wandering about the land.

At day's end, they entered a bustling city and made their way to its synagogue. There, the men of the city sat, dressed in their finest clothes and seated according to rank. When the time of prayer had ended, the men turned to one another and asked, "Who should take in the two wanderers?" No one wanted to invite them into his house. "Let them stay the night in the synagogue," they all agreed, and the matter was settled.

So the prophet and the rabbi, unfed and unwashed, spent the night in the synagogue. When the men returned to pray the next morning, Eliyahu took leave of them, parting with the wish, "May you all become city officials."

Rabbi Yehoshua could contain himself no longer. "You call this God's justice? You reward evil with favor and punish good with suffering!"

Eliyahu answered in a powerful voice, "Didn't I tell you that you would not be able to bear what I do? Now I will explain everything to you. Heaven had decreed that the wife of the poor man was supposed to die that night. However, because of the couple's sincere kindness I prayed to God that He accept the death of their cow as atonement instead. And, indeed, He did. The man whose wall I fixed -- beneath its stones lay a hidden treasure and, had he made the repairs himself, he would have discovered it. This treasure would only have served to harden his heart more and increase his evil. As for the arrogant men at the synagogue I wished for them to become city officials, because a city with many officials will become a place of great quarreling. Their own arrogance will be their downfall."

Then Eliyahu looked deep into the rabbi's eyes. "Our journey together has ended. What you have seen you will see wherever you go. Who are you that you should have the impudence to say you can comprehend the ways of the All-wise One, or search the paths of He Who Is Without Limit? It is enough that you know what you need to do for your own righteousness. Be silent before God's justice, which is far beyond your grasp."

It may not be the answer we want to hear. However, we are not God. No matter how smart we think we are, or actually are, we are subjective human beings living in an isolated ego entrapped in a tiny island of time called "Life." Sometimes, some of us gain a perspective, or at least a glimpse of a perspective on our sufferings -- even if that perspective only first comes after many, many years. Sometimes we don't. In either event, we have to understand that God sees a bigger picture (which includes but is not necessarily limited to the Next World).

If the Torah obligates us to give other human beings the benefit of the doubt, how much more so are we obligated to give it to our Maker?

1. Maharal, Derech Chaim.Back to Text

2. Rashi to Shevuos 30a.Back to Text

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