A Friend


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student



Chapter 1, Mishna 6: “…Acquire for yourself a friend…”


We last left off discussing the Rambam’s explanation of the prohibition to take revenge and bear a grudge. The Rambam says that one who recognizes that the true good is not to be found in the material world will not feel the need to take revenge, for another person can never take away this true good. We asked how this principle would apply in a case where one does take away the real good, such as where one person takes away another’s time for involvement in learning Torah. In such a case, would the Rambam then say that revenge is justified?

In order to understand this question, we took up an interesting story in the Talmud that gives us insight into how one should relate to knowledge and learning. The Talmud, in Tractate Berachos, tells us of a discussion that took place when Rabbi Yochanon visited Rabbi Eliezer who was sick. Rabbi Eliezer was crying so Rabbi Yochanon asked him why, for if he was crying that he didn’t learn enough Torah, then that is not a problem for “whether one has a lot or a little, as long as his heart is towards heaven”. At first glance, the consolation of Rabbi Yochanon seems difficult to understand- does he mean to tell us that how much one knows doesn’t matter? This would seem to contradict a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud that says that one word of Torah is worth as much as fulfilling all of the commandments!

Understanding this gives us an understanding of how we are to relate to learning Torah. A wise man doesn’t relate to learning as a conquest and acquisition of Torah; rather, to him the overall relationship to Torah is the value:  a few pages of learning don’t make the difference. If one lost the ability to learn a bit more than he can now, he isn’t on a lower level, because his relationship to Torah is the same.

This idea is also expressed by the law of ‘Toraso Umenaso’, that one whose work is learning Torah, is exempt from certain commandments. Rabbeinu Asher (known as the Rosh), an early commentator on the Talmud, explains that to be considered one who is ‘Toraso Umenaso’ one doesn’t have to spend all day learning. Rather, one must utilize every free moment for learning. In doing so, he demonstrates that involvement in the knowledge of Torah is most valuable to him. From here we can also see that the issue isn’t merely the amount of time spent learning, but rather the relationship to learning that is important.

With this point of view, we can return to the Rambam and answer our question. One who values his relationship to knowledge will never take revenge, even on time taken away from learning, for he knows that his perfection is found in his state of mind and nothing can take away from that. What another person does can’t affect the way another person relates to Torah and knowledge. Therefore, revenge is never justified.

An interesting observation may be gleaned: one who perfects himself for his own personal gain actually lacks in perfection. When one reaches a level of perfection where one loves God, his actions are not done for himself, but rather for God. Love of God means that the person is focused on that which is external to the self, namely the idea of God, so that personal gains are no longer the motivation of the person.

From our discussion, it appears that the prohibitions to take revenge and bear a grudge are for people who are already on a high level. How could the Torah demand of everyone that they reach this philosophical level? While it may be true that most people don’t have this viewpoint constantly, at least at the time that they guard these prohibitions, they will realize these ideas. This, in and of itself, will be of benefit to the person.

The Rambam, commenting on this part of the Mishna, quotes Aristotle as saying something beautiful: “You are your own friend”, and then he cites Aristotle’s three types of friendships. The first types of friendship are those who are friends for personal gain and benefit. The second type is where the friends gain pleasure from being with each other. The third level is where they are friends for a higher purpose, which is to help each other do the good.

When we analyze these categories of friendships, there are a number of questions that arise. First, why does the Rambam say that the first type of friendship, where friends seek some gain, is considered a friendship at all? Second, what exactly is the difference between the second type and the third type? They both are intended for some gain, so what is the difference if it is for personal purpose, or a ‘higher’ purpose? Third, the Rambam makes the point that in the friendship for the higher purpose, they want the good for each other. Here too we may ask: why is this characteristic of the third type…the other types can have it as well? Take the first type for example: the two may wish both to benefit and gain. Why does the Rambam say this is only applicable to the third type of friendship? To be continued…