Rabbi Ishmael would say: Be yielding to a leader, affable to the black-haired, and receive every man with joy. (Avot 3:12)
This mishna has two seemingly contradictory themes in it: on the one hand, a sense of hierarchy and authority, and on the other hand, a notion of universality and equality. Which one is the proper path, most fitting with Torah tradition? Inquiry of this type must lead us to understand concepts from the Torah’s perspective; the only conclusion can be one which embraces paradox. Rabbi Yishmael informs us here that both hierarchy and equality co-exist as a complex of meaning.
Rashi (loc cit.) offers us several explanations of this mishna. One should be yielding to a leader, namely, that one should dedicate himself to performing the will of his Creator while he is young, in order for this to be a natural and comfortable part of his life in his old age. We have to leverage the vigor of our youth to create momentum in our spiritual lives that will carry us the whole way. This is similar to one who works and saves his earnings, reinvesting the dividends and capitalizing on the power of compound interest so that when he retires, he experiences no change in lifestyle, other than the fact that he can now be fully invested in what he enjoys, and does not have to go to work as a way of bringing this about.
There is a story I heard recently about a certain elderly tzaddik who compared ideas about youth and old age. He noted that, for some people, youth is a time to satisfy one’s desires and enjoy the pleasures of this world–something that is more possible when one’s physiological state is optimal for these things–whereas old age is feared as a time of quiet desperation without the spice of life. For the spiritually-oriented, however, youth is the time when our eyes and hearts are so distracted by the attractions of physical life that it requires massive effort to stay on course, whereas, when this euphoria wears off, one actually becomes free to immerse himself in the most pleasurable activities, such as deep learning and ecstatic prayer. In order to experience this, one must keep his priorities straight and work hard to serve G-d during his youth.
What if you already feel “old”? There is another piece of advice that Reb Nosson zt”l offers us: we must not think from one day to the next. This means that one must transcend the idea of linear time in order to experience a present moment in which everything is possible. In this way, one can go back to the beginning and regain one’s youth again, one can start again and set in motion a spiritual acceleration that will allow him to take flight again.
When one is back in this growth mode, hierarchy becomes important. Hierarchy is an instrument that allows us to appreciate the journey we’ve taken and to estimate the road ahead. There are people who have reached levels above our own, and others who are still climbing to reach the place to which we have come. Rabbi Yishmael instructs us to have deference for the former and a gentle and approachable attitude towards the latter. Those people who sit at a higher peak on the one hand have a broader perspective, and offer us a glimpse at what is possible, at what is attainable. Those people who glance upwards at our plateau need encouragement and assurance in order to climb higher.
What is universal to everyone, no matter where he or she is on this ladder, is the need to have one’s existence acknowledged. The verse states, “like water, in which a face answers a face, so is the heart of one person to another” (Proverbs 27:19). When we look at our reflection in a cup of water, the face we see will be exactly the one we make. Hearts are the same way; people relate to each other in accordance with the way they reach out. Therefore, Rabbi Yishmael tells us, we must receive everyone with joy.
The gemara states, “a pearl from the mouth of Abbaye: ‘be transparent in reverence, address people softly, answer warmly, and instigate peace amongst your brethren and loved ones, all men, including the Gentile in the marketplace, so that you will be beloved Above, and endeared below, and accepted by all creatures’” (Berachos 17b).
May we be blessed to reclaim our vigor and to co-exist peacefully and with joy with G-d and man.
GOOD SHABBOS! SHABBAT SHALOM!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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