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Ethics of the Fathers, 2:13: Lighting the Way through Darkness

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yonason Goldson

What is the good path? An in-depth, mystical analysis

[Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai] said to [his students]: Go and see which is the good path to which a person should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences. Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart. [Rabban Yochanon] said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours. Ethics of the Fathers, 2:13

An old cliche instructs us: Give a man a fish and you've given him food for a day; teach him to fish and you've given him food for a lifetime.

The principle applies especially well to education and echoes the two approaches to learning discussed in our last mishna. Teach a student information and you will have added to his reservoir of knowledge; teach him how to learn and you will have enabled him to educate himself for the rest of his life.

For this reason, Rabban Yochanon does not merely teach his students which is "the good path" that a person should follow. Instead, he sends them out to "see" for themselves, to discover on their own the answer to this all-important question.

But where does Rabban Yochanon want them to look? And what do their answers mean? A good eye? A good heart? How do these simplistic sound bytes define the "good path"? And why does Rabban Yochanon find Rabbi Elazar's answer superior to those of his fellow students?*

Jewish tradition teaches that before the Almighty created the world, He "looked" into the Torah, His blueprint for creation. The best way to understand our place in the world, therefore, is for us to look into the Torah as well.

This was how the students of Rabban Yochanon interpreted their teacher's instruction to "go and see." They began at the beginning, carefully rereading the narrative of creation, looking for any clue through which the Torah might direct us along the "good path."

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning -- one day.

Each of the students independently followed the narrative of creation and each, mindful of their teacher's instruction to find the good path, stopped at the same place: And God saw the light, that it was good. Each student recognized that the Torah's first mention of the word "good" offered the most likely source for divining the good path they had been instructed to seek.

At this point they all arrived in agreement. From here forward their interpretations diverged.

Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye

An understanding of the students' answers, however, requires a closer investigation of the creation narrative. The light of creation cannot refer simply to the light by which we see, for the simple reason that the Almighty did not create the sun and the stars until the fourth day, whereas He created the light on day one. If so, what was this light of creation?

The kabbalists explain that since God is everywhere, He could not begin to create the universe until He had first created a place where He was not, a spiritual vacuum that would serve as the blank canvas on which He would produce the greatest creative masterpiece imaginable -- the universe, the world, and Man. Only after preparing this spiritual vacuum (the void and darkness described in the verse), could the spirit of God, as it hovered over the emptiness of pre-creation (the face of the deep) begin the act of creation, reintroducing the divine energy of the Eternal into the spiritual void -- an act that can only be described in human language through the expression, Let there be light!

Through this act of Divine illumination, the Almighty translated His creative blueprint into physical and spiritual reality. The Torah, previously a formless ideal in the infinite mind of God, took shape in the form of a world created for the fulfillment of spiritual purpose. It is for this reason that the Aramaic name for Torah is "d'oraissa" -- source of light -- for it shows us the path and guides us as we seek to find our way through the darkness of the physical world toward spiritual enlightenment.

Thus Rabbi Eliezer declares that to walk the "good path" requires a "good eye," the ability to perceive the Divine light of God and follow it through our world of spiritual darkness. The spiritually myopic or, even worse, the spiritually blind, will stumble and stray from the path. Only one who cultivates the spiritual sensitivity to recognize and appreciate the Divine illumination of the Torah will be able to cling to the good path.

Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend

According to Jewish law, each 24-hour day actually begins as the evening sun falls below the horizon. Just as the Jewish Sabbath starts Friday evening, so too does every day of the week begin as night falls rather than with dawn the following morning. The biblical source for this is the verse, And there was evening and there was morning -- one day.

Why is this so?

Human nature dictates that we truly appreciate only those things we are forced to do without. Just as the light of creation is essential to human beings, equally essential is our appreciation of that light. With this in mind, as well as for the kabbalistic reasons already discussed, the Almighty created first the darkness before the light, to enable His creations to fully appreciate the light that would illuminate their world.

The light, therefore, became a good friend to the darkness that preceded it, while the darkness provided the context in which to value and cherish the light. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, adherence to the good path requires not only spiritual perception but a context to give that perception true meaning -- not only a good eye but a good friend as well.

Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor

The kabbalists introduce us to the mystifying idea that, in the earliest moments of creation, light and darkness were not divided as they are now, but were somehow intertwined in harmonious coexistence.

Having already defined the light of creation not as photons striking the optic nerve but as spiritual illumination of the divine will, we can take the next step of interpreting light as symbolic of good and darkness as symbolic of evil. Since everything the Almighty does is ultimately for the good, light and darkness -- i.e., good and evil -- were at first inextricably woven together. But since the ultimate purpose of creation would require that Man recognize and choose the good path, God needed to enable Man to discern which was the good that he should follow.

According to Rabbi Yossi, therefore, it is sufficient neither to have a good eye to see the light nor a good friend to appreciate it. What is even more critical is a good neighbor, the ability to draw and recognize boundaries between the light and the darkness, between good and evil. As Rabbi Yossi understood it, this is the key to walking the good path.

Even greater than nuclear energy is the power of the Almighty's Divine light.

Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences

The Talmud explains that the creation of light, although necessary for the existence of Man, presented a profound danger to survival of Man as well.

Just as nuclear technology can produce the energy to sustain all civilization, so too can it produce the destructive power to annihilate all civilization. Even greater than nuclear energy is the power of the Almighty's Divine light. In the hands of the righteous, God's spiritual light can elevate humanity to the level of godliness. In the hands of the unscrupulous it can be perverted to manipulate and exploit the unlimited blessing God has placed in His world for our benefit.

God required, therefore, a plan through which He could limit the access of the wicked to His Divine light. He needed a place to hide the light, so He hid it in the Torah.

Originally, God intended to allow His light to permeate the entire world, that every tree and stone, every field and mountain would testify to the divinity of creation and guide Mankind along the good path. To protect it from the misuse, however, the Almighty withdrew His light from every corner of the world and concealed it in a place where the wicked would not go.

Unlike other intellectual pursuits, the study of Torah is no mere academic discipline. To truly acquire Torah wisdom, the student of Torah must commit himself to the internalization of Torah values and must allow the Torah to transform his character. Although Jewish history does provide examples of charlatans who learned enough to exploit their Torah knowledge, these are the exceptions to the rule. For the most part, by the time a scholar reaches the level where he has acquired Torah wisdom, the Torah has shaped him into one of the righteous to whom the divine light of Torah can be safely entrusted.

For this reason, Rabbi Shimon declares that the essential quality to walk the good path is to foresee consequences, to see and appreciate and discern the divine light not only as it appears at any given moment, but to anticipate what will become of it as one walks the good path in pursuit of spiritual goals.

Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart

The greatest distance is from the head to the heart.

"The greatest distance," our rabbis teach, "is from the head to the heart." Intellectual knowledge is indispensable, but true wisdom comes when we internalize what we know in our minds so that it penetrates our hearts, when we allow what we know to become part of who we are.

The first four students of Rabban Yochanon all identified the correct source to answer their teacher's question, and they all accurately interpreted its relevance. Their argument was about emphasis: which is the most critical factor in adhering to the good path? Perception, context, discernment, or foresight?

But they erred by failing to recognize that each of the steps they identified is part of a process, a process that remains incomplete without every component. No one factor outweighs any of the others, since the process itself is an indivisible whole.

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach expressed this understanding as a good heart: only when one has completed the process of acquiring total perspective of every facet of the Divine light is he equipped to adhere to the good path; only when he has completed the whole process will he have fully internalized the values of Torah; and only then will he have refined his character to the point where his Torah wisdom will faithfully serve him, and where he will faithfully serve it.

It is the total commitment to acquiring a good heart that enables one to walk the good path. This is why Rabban Yochanon declares: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.

A final insight into Rabbi Elazar's words comes through the application of gematria, the calculation of numerical equivalents. The Hebrew word heart, lev, is composed of the letters lamed and beis. The numerical equivalent of lamed is 30, and that of beis is 2. In the narrative of creation, we find that from the first word of the Torah until the word good we count 32 words, the equivalent of lev, or heart.

Not merely the story of creation but the very structure of the Divine word provides a remarkable illumination of Rabbi Elazar's lesson. Only by beginning at the beginning and working steadfastly through to the end can one acquire a good heart and successfully negotiate the good path. Like any physical journey, the journey to spiritual well-being begins with a single step and ends only after the traveler has placed one foot in front of the other until he arrives at his destination.

*This discussion is adapted from the Chassidic classic, B'nei Yissosschar.

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