Rabbi Israel Chait

Transcribed by a student

Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua says, “Let the honor of your student be dear to you as your own, and the honor of your fellow be like the awe of your teacher, and the awe of your teacher be like the awe of Heaven” (Avos 4:12).

Rabbeinu Yona had a different version:

Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as the honor of your friend, and the honor of your friend should be as dear to you as the honor of your teacher, and the honor of your teachers  should be as dear to you as the honor of God.

Rabbeinu Yona comments:

This does not mean to give the same honor to a student as one gives to his friend, or to treat one’s friend as one treats one’s teacher, or to treat one’s teacher as one treats God. Rather, treat each person in his proper measure. But just as you cannot diminish your friend’s honor, so also do not diminish the honor due to your student. Thus, the mishna means that one must be as cautious with his students as he is with his friends, and as cautious with his friend’s honor as he is with his fear for his teacher, and the fear/awe he shows his teacher should equate to that which he shows to God. One should take seriously those of lesser status. We learn that since one’s teacher represents Torah, one should treat him with the same awe as he treats God. The teacher teaches a person to fear God [and therefore one must relate to his teacher with that awe].

Awe is reserved for God and for a teacher who teaches one to fear God. But honor is applied to a friend or to a student. Rabbeinu Yona continues:

As one is to relate to students as he does to his friend, and he must relate to his friend as he does to his teacher, and to his teacher as he relates to God, it ends up that one must relate to students as he relates to God.

Why is the mishna written in a step-by-step format? It should just say that all four parties should be treated equally, as Rabbeinu Yona says that all four are on one level.

Rabbeinu Yona says that there are two ways one acts regarding interpersonal relationships. Typically, one relates to his friend emotionally. One also relates to his students emotionally, but of course not as he relates to his friend. There is a certain natural emotional relationship with a student, and the same applies to how one relates to his teacher. One has different social relationships with different people. 

Chazal teach that one should not act typically and carry out his various relationships based on his natural psychological expressions. Because when one functions in relationships psychologically, it is not just that the student is accorded less honor, but honor for the student becomes less important than honor for one’s friend. And honor for one’s friend becomes less important than honor for his teacher. Chazal say this is wrong. In truth, all people should be equated and treated with the honor one gives to God; when relating to any person, one is not to relate to him based on his role or his personality, but one should relate to him as God’s creation. The importance of the honor accorded to any person must be equal, as everyone is an expression of God’s will. We are not to relate to others psychologically. One who functions properly must maintain his relationships on a metaphysical level. The equality of relationships with every person is derived from halacha. The same Torah that demands honor for students also demands honor for God. The one source of halacha thereby equates all acts of relating to others. Thus, when one relates to another, he should do so based on halacha and not based on his psychological feelings. This explains Rabbeinu Yona’s summation that all are [to be treated] equal. One’s friend deserves honor as one shares the precious entity of Torah with him, and the same applies to a student:

Just as the students are obliged to honor the rebbe, so is the rebbe obliged to honor his disciples with deference and to draw them near. Thus, said the sages , “Let the honor of your disciple be dear to you even as your own” (Avos  4:12). 

Maimonides says, “just as” (ki’shem), but this does not refer to the amount or the quality of honor, as one’s teacher deserves awe, unlike students. Maimonides says that just as one has an obligation to honor one party, so too he has an obligation to honor the other party. Maimonides continues:

And it is essential for a man to care for his disciples and to love them, for they are the sons who make life enjoyable, both in this world and in the World to Come (Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:12).

Thus, honor to others is to be expressed on an objective plane. Maimonides continues:

The students increase the master’s wisdom and broaden his heart. The sages said, “Much wisdom have I learned from my masters, more than that from my colleagues, but from my disciples more than from all of them combined” (Ta’anit 7a). Even as a small branch kindles the big one, so too a small disciple sharpens the mind of the master, to the end that he brings forth from him, by his questions, a beautified wisdom.

The rebbe should appreciate his students, because, as Maimonides says, they increase his Torah.

Why doesn’t the mishna simply say, “Treat all people equally, as one treats God” instead of using this progressive format [i.e., student, friend, teacher, God]?

The progressive format provides a means of teaching us how to act. By saying that one should treat a student like his friend, the mishna offers a reasonable comparison: “Should I treat my students as students, or should I treat them as I treat my friend?” The leap is a small one and one that a person can entertain within reason. But had the mishna said, “Treat everyone as one treats God,” the leap from student to God would be too great to entertain. Thus, the mishna provides an acceptable step to attain the goal of treating the lowest like the highest, but in a gradual fashion. Thereby, one can realize and entertain the principle. The mishna teaches the idea and offers a method of application.

Once a person stops treating his student with less honor than he does his friend, he releases himself from that emotional niche. Thereby, one removes himself from relating to his student emotionally, allowing him to relate to the student as halacha demands: on a rational and halachic plane. 

Maimonides possessed a different version of the text: “The honor of your student should be like your own honor.” When it comes to a student, one should introduce the concept of treating him as you do yourself. Regarding the treatment of a friend, fear is introduced [as opposed to honor]. And in one’s relationship to his teacher, the fear of Heaven is introduced. Fear expressed toward a teacher is one matter, but the fear of Heaven is a metaphysical fear/awe. In each relationship, one introduces a [new and] different aspect. In each relationship, one removes himself from the emotional plane by introducing a new element.

Having fear for one’s friend does not mean one must be in awe of his friend, but that his treatment of his friend equates to his treatment of his teacher. Treating a friend with awe removes the natural expression of a psychological relationship. One elevates himself in this manner.

The world feels if anything except emotions are involved in relationships, the relationship is deficient. With this mishna, Judaism revises human relationships. Judaism says that the emotional relationship alone is weak, empty, unstable, and is not an expression of the higher form of man. Judaism differs not only from the world but also from the philosophers, for no philosopher could ever work out such a system. Without God providing a halachic system, it would be nonsensical to make up arbitrary values.

Saadia Gaon asked why it was necessary to have Mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, [for even] without Mattan Torah we agree that the Torah’s ideas are true. Thus, a great intellect could arrive at the Torah’s conclusions on his own, just like Abraham did. Maimonides cites certain Greek philosophers who arrived at the same ideas that the Torah expresses, but one could not arrive at halachos as stated in our mishna without the Torah. One could never assume that he should treat his teacher the same way he treats God. Judaism maintains that all relationships must be of an objective halachic quality. That is the true relationship, unlike what the world seeks in its purely emotional relationships. Judaism frowns upon such relationships. This applies to spouses as well—a marriage must be based on objective halachic concepts. If the halachic element is lacking in any relationship, one fails to act as an adam [an intellectual being].

Parshas Vayechi provides an example. As Jacob was approaching death, he called his son Joseph to ensure that he would not be interned in Egypt. Typically, a father in this situation would tell his son, “I am your father, this is what I want you to do.” But Jacob did not operate this way:

And  when the time approached for Yisrael (Jacob) to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: Please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” Joseph replied, “I will do as you have spoken.” And Jacob said, “Swear to me.” And Joseph swore to him. Then Yisrael bowed at the head of the bed (Gen. 47:29-31).

Jacob expressed the perfection that the honor for one’s student [son] should be just like one’s own honor. Jacob spoke to Joseph with great respect; they did not have a typical father/son relationship. We are to always recognize that we are relating to a tzelem Elohim [an intelligent creature], which is an objective entity, and therefore the relationship must operate on that basis.

Rashi says that Jacob bowed to Joseph even though Jacob was greater than Joseph. But Joseph was a king and Jacob showed him honor. Later we read, “Yisrael (Jacob) strengthened himself and sat on the bed (Ibid. 48:2).” Chazal say: 

“Even though he is my son, he is a king and I will give him honor.” From here we learn that one must give honor to kingship.

First, Jacob made a political gesture, “Then Yisrael bowed at the head of the bed.” But when Jacob “strengthened himself and sat on the bed” it is referred to as giving honor to kingship. What is the difference? It is also interesting as this is his own son. But even so, Jacob did not simply relate to Joseph in an emotional framework, as a father to a son. Rather, he conducted all his relationships using wisdom.

In the first case, Jacob offered a political gesture. One must be aware that a king (Joseph) is in a different mental framework; one must be aware of such a person’s emotions. And just because Jacob was related to Joseph, this did not give him the right to relate to Joseph differently from any other king, whose mentality must be treated accordingly.

In the first case, Jacob bowed to Joseph after he promised Jacob that he would do as he had asked. Jacob’s bow was a political gesture. In the second case, why did Jacob “strengthen himself [to sit up]  on the bed?” He did so before Joseph entered the room. Jacob was ill and could have remained in a reclining position, but by strengthening himself before Joseph came into the room, he showed that it was not a political gesture. Here, Jacob carried out an objective action; as Chazal said, he gave honor to kingship. This was a halachic act; the first case was political. Even Moshe showed honor to Pharaoh.

In the span of a few verses we see the perfect person’s relationships. First, Jacob honored his son, which is in line with “Let the honor of your students be dear to you as your own….” Second, Jacob also respected Joseph as a great political figure and bowed to him. Third, Jacob acted halachically and sat up on the bed before Joseph entered the room. 

This is Judaism: a completely different approach in relationships. No relationship is exempt from being raised to an objective plane, especially the relationship between husband and wife. Problems arise in relationships because spouses desire to benefit emotionally from the union without any wisdom applied. But as long as one functions on an infantile plane, he cannot be successful, because one partner’s infantile needs—which are endless—face off against the other partner, whose own infantile needs are endless. Such a relationship is impossible to succeed.

A psychologist said that when analyzing a person, all parts of the personality must be scrutinized. He gave the following analogy: If the police said they would patrol all places except for one town, surely all the criminals would relocate to that unpatrolled town. The same is true with the human personality. If all but one part of the psyche is scrutinized, that one area is where one will vent all his emotions. Therefore, halacha governs all relationships, demanding an objective treatment of all people.

The Rav said, “At the Passover  Seder we serve God through our stomachs.” Every step of the Seder is guided by halacha. So too in human relationships. Judaism tells a person to enjoy his relationships, but he must also guide them using his intellect, his tzelem Elohim. The personal satisfaction received by one who follows the Torah is a greater psychological satisfaction than one who fully immerses himself in pleasures. Judaism does not want a person to forfeit this world’s pleasures, but requires that these pleasures be enjoyed within a framework as a means. As an end, following pleasures drives one crazy. Even a person on the level of a prophet should enjoy a walk and appreciate nature. Physical enjoyments provide a person with a pleasant state of mind, but one’s primary focus must be to engage his intellect. The distorted man plunges all his energies into earthly pleasures. [Man cannot satisfy his energies in the physical, or else his end will be frustration.]

The perfected person derives greater satisfaction from personal relationships since he relates to others as he was designed to do, and in the proper perspective. Therefore, his relationships are purely pleasurable and without pain. But one who seeks to derive all his satisfaction from personal relationships will meet with impossible results.

This is one of the most important concepts in Pirkei Avos, for one must revise his whole way of living. Not only is this important for relationships, but [more] for one’s philosophical perfection, shleimus ha’adam. A person who lives this way must live on a different plane. The emotions that seek satisfaction are usually the unbridled social emotions, which are the most devastating emotions. As a point of mussar [moral instruction], this is the essence of Pirkei Avos: Halomeid v’aino oseh (one who learns but does not put into practice) has a serious defect. One should therefore practice what he learns.