Insights in Pirkei Avot: Honor and Anger

By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva

They would each say three things. Rabbi Eliezer would say: The honor of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own, and do not be quick to anger. Repent one day before your death. Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but be cautious not to be burned by their coals; for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals. (Avot 2:10)

The introduction informs us that each sage emphasized three essential teachings yet R. Eliezer apparently include four distinct ideas. R. Ovadia Bartenura explains that the first two themes combine to form a single idea. Success in guarding our friend’s honor depends upon maintaining equanimity and not becoming angry. The angry fellow loses any sense of reasonable judgment and inevitable says something insulting to colleagues.

Tiferet Yisrael agrees that honor and anger influence each other but notes the opposite causal direction. Just as anger leads to not honoring others, excessive concern for honor engenders anger. R. Lipschutz describes an escalating fight in which the anger of someone moderately slighted leads him to up the ante in a harsher response which then generates an even grander insult from the other party.

If we only remembered to guard our friend’s honor as our own, we could avoid this petty squabble. We do not want our peers to say something even mildly insulting about us, be it in a straightforward fashion or through hints and innuendo. Additionally, when we do insult others, we do not want them to retort with a far more severe slur. Internalizing these thought would prevent the cataclysmic conflicts that break out among friends, family, and neighbors.

R. Lipshutz adds an insightful interpretation of the fire imagery. Students want to receive both illumination and warmth from their teachers. Disciples can access the light of an instructor’s insight and knowledge even from afar, sitting in the back of the classroom or reading the works of the master. However, the warmth of inspiration and emulation requires a personal relationship involving closer interaction. A fire across the room provides light without heat, so too the teacher who instructs from afar.

Perhaps this idea relates to our earlier theme. Ideally, teachers model for students a personality slow to anger and not overly zealous about personal honor. Not every teacher reaches these lofty goals but some do; and our student should meet them. Our students will not fully benefit from such models by simply reading good lecture notes; they need direct encounter with the warmth of a powerful ethical personality.

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