Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Provide yourself with a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man on the scale of merit.
This has to be one of my favorite sayings from Pirkei Avot. These three things are three areas in which I would imagine most people fall short (with my name being at the top of the list). Let’s touch on these briefly.
Being nearly two thousand years removed from the faith of Yeshua and his talmidim (disciples), we honestly do not have an idea of what it means to be a disciple or student. In modern times, a student is a single person in a sea of classmates; a teacher is a distant authoritarian to guide you through a textbook. We just don’t have the concept of a student-teacher relationship like in the Biblical period. During these times, especially within the Jewish cutlure, a rabbi would take on a few students and spend a great deal of time with them. He would pour into them his great wealth of knowledge. From those students there would be those who would excel and shine a little brighter than the rest. Like the fat from milk, the cream would rise to the top—not to dominate, but to be proven as a candidate to take the mantel from the rabbi and pass it to the next generation. From there the student-teacher relationship was further bonded, and all that the rabbi could pour out was lapped up by his student. We have massive gaps in the wisdom of one generation to the next. We have arrogance and pride as the chasm between the younger and the older. We are "wise in our own eyes" according to Scripture, in that we literally believe we cannot be taught. We are self-made, self-taught, and self-destructive. We need the counsel and instruction of our elders, specifically a teacher who is wise in the ways of Adonai that can pour into us the wisdom that only comes through experience—not theory. Yeshua gives us a great example of this student-teacher relationship. He has literally thousands of disciples, but he has only twelve that he is with day in and day out. Within those twelve, he has three with whom he is closest. He revealed his soul to these three only. He took them to the mountain of Transfiguration (Matthew 17) where his mission was sanctioned by his Father in the presence of these three witnesses. They were close enough to Yeshua to share in his most wonderful and most painful experiences of life.
In the west, we truly do not have an understanding of camaraderie. We are a lonely people, an isolated people. We have a shallow definition of friendship, and are threatened by the thought of needing another person—especially that of the same sex. We take pride in the fact that we don’t ‘need’ anyone. We are an island to our own. But Scripture teaches us that "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17). You see, without others, we cannot be sharp. We can never be the scalpel in the hand of HASHEM. We will always be the butterknife in the wound. Without others who are close enough to us to smooth out our roughness, we will always be "rough around the edges." We will always be abrasive with those to whom we come in contact. We will always be the "diamond in the rough", so to speak—never being polished to our potential radiance and beauty. If I didn’t have others in my life, I would be a Scripture-sniper. What do I mean by that? I mean, I would be using the Scriptures to knock off people left and right, without ever a care for them, and without them really ever seeing me (for who I am). I would destroy them with my doctrine, rather than encourage their spiritual metamorphosis with my love. The old adage is definitely true that people "don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care." By ignoring the command to "acquire for yourself a friend" as a study partner and a true confidant, we not only deprive others from what we have to offer, but deprive ourselves from our full potential.
And lastly, we have the statement that ties these two together. We are to "judge all men (yes, women as well) on the scale of merit." But what does this mean? I understand it to mean something similar to what Yeshua said in his sermon on the Mount:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ’Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:1-6, NIV)
In this passage, we hear Yeshua admonishing his disciples on the subject of judgement & correction. Too often we hear "Do not judge!" But we don’t understand the application. We must realize that not only are we supposed to judge (1 Corinthians 5 is a good example of this), but we must do so accurately and for the benefit of the other person. When Yeshuah instructs us not to judge, he is not telling us that we shouldn’t discern that the deeds of others are either righteous or wicked, but rather that we should not be quick to jump to conclusions to condemn the person without a fair and thorough investigation. This is why he tells us "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." If we are quick to condemn others, we will quickly be condemned. If we judge people with fairness and optimism, the same will be shown to us. This is why we must first "remove the plank" in our own eye (i.e. make sure we don’t have four fingers pointing back at us in the same area of sin!) before we come to our brother in correction. This is the point of our mishnah. To judge a person "on the scale of merit" means that we judge with love, just as the Apostle Paul reminds us:
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:6,7)
If we truly love a person, we will not delight in knowing they have done evil, nor will we assume the worst regarding them. We will protect them and their integrity by not listening to gossip without getting the facts directly from the one accused. We will trust that Hashem is doing a work in their lives, rather than forsaking them at a moment’s notice. We will realize that we are all growing, maturing, learning and that somehow this circumstance is possibly a misunderstanding of the facts. We will persevere in loving the accused (even if it is ’tough love’ that has to distance them for a season) through their accusation until their restoration. Lastly, I have never heard the last section of Yeshua’s teaching on judging (regarding dogs, pearls and pigs) associated with the previous two sections. It has always been taught as a separate thought or idea. However, as I was looking at this, it seemed clear that this was indeed a continuation of the instructions regarding judgement. In the same way we must be cautious to accuse someone of wrong doing, we must also be cautious of bringing a word of correction to someone who is not ready to receive it. Proverbs tell us:
Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse. Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:7-8, NIV)
If the person truly has a heart for Hashem, your (gentle)rebuke will only draw him to t’shuva (repentance). If he is bent on going his own way, your rebuke will only receive criticism. Proverbs puts this another way by saying,
"Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, since he has no desire to get wisdom" (Proverbs 17:16)
Isn’t this exactly what Yeshua is saying? This is indeed casting our pearls before swine. Therefore, let us judge all men in love, and use wisdom in our correction.