Regardless of Race, Creed or Religion
Chapter 4, Mishna 20
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Masya ben (son of) Charash said: Be first to greet every person,
and be the tail of lions rather than the head of foxes."
One aspect of Pirkei Avos I always find striking is how quickly and
effortlessly it switches from the heavy and philosophical to the
down-to-earth and practical. (Last week we talked about why the good suffer
in this world. And by the way, we'll be returning to the "heavy" almost
immediately -- and then going back to the "light".) It's almost as if our
Sages are telling us as follows: Don't spend too much time delving into the
unanswerable quandaries of life. We can analyze and understand so much. But
contemplating G-d is not the sole road to salvation. Don't forget to say
hello to your neighbor along the way.
As always, Judaism is a practical religion. It tells us -- in fact it almost
exclusively focuses on -- being decent, reasonable human beings -- in our
behavior towards G-d, our fellow man, and our environment. There are
principles of faith and philosophy we must adhere to and internalize. But
they only truly become reality -- and life -- through simple, sincere acts
And saying hello is certainly a great way to start. As we all know, it's
almost uncanny how much a cheerful greeting can accomplish through so little
investment of time and effort. The Talmud writes that R. Yochanan ben
Zakkai, Israel's spiritual head at the time of the destruction of the Second
Temple, was always first to greet whomever he came across, even Gentile on
the street (Brachos 17a). We can easily imagine a world leader having far
too much on his mind to pay attention to the little man on the street. (It
wasn't like he was going to be voted out of office either. And needless to
say, it was long before the days of photo-ops.) But from the Jewish
perspective, one only *becomes* a world leader by recognizing that the world
consists of countless such little men -- every one of which deserving such
respect and attention.
In a practical sense, there are many benefits to greeting another warmly.
First, it warms the recipient, who has been deemed worthy of another's
regard. And second, it reminds the giver that others are worthy of such
regard. It shakes us out of our own self-absorption and reminds us to be
concerned with the well-being of others. Third, if the greeter is visibly
Jewish, it reflects positively on Judaism and its adherents. Judaism is,
quite simply, a religion which cares about others regardless of race, creed
or -- remarkably -- religion. We may differ in outlook, style and substance,
but in no way does that interfere with the simple courtesy to which all
human beings are entitled.
Lastly, R. Masya advises us to be unconditional in our greetings. Saying
hello to others should be reflexive (if not robotic). It should not permit a
sense of justice to come into play -- does this person deserve my attention,
shouldn't *he* greet *me* first, etc. A greeting is free -- even if
invaluable. We should never first ask ourselves if another "deserves" our
greeting: he does so naturally. We greet others -- both Jew and Gentile --
because they are human beings. Human beings are created in the image of G-d.
No more justification is necessary -- nor should be sought -- to greet our
Such simple advice! As much of ethical conduct, it is in no way reserved for
the scholarly or the philosophically-inclined. R. Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, of
early 18th Century Italy, was one of the great kabbalists and ethicists of
his time. In his introduction to his famous ethical work The Path of the
Just, he writes that most of what his book contains is not anything we do
not know already. His book is not filled with insights and novelties
(actually it is). It is common sense knowledge we are all familiar with. But
somehow, that which is so simple and "obvious" to us all -- perhaps because
it is so obvious -- is typically neglected by layman and scholar alike.
(R. Luzzatto also bemoans that people do not consider ethics a serious topic
for study. *Real* scholars study the more meaty Talmudical jurisprudence.
Ethics become the subject of the unlearned -- or not a subject at all.)
Our mishna continues, "Be the tail of lions rather than the head of foxes."
It is better to be in the company of those greater than us in Torah. Better
to be the lowly, humble student of lions rather than great scholar among the
foxes. We naturally adapt ourselves to our environment. If we associate with
scholars, we will both learn from their ways and be motivated towards
greater growth. If we associate with the unlearned, we will stagnate with
little incentive to realize our own potential. There are few who are so
self-motivated as to require no outside stimulus for spiritual growth. Only
through having our own role models and recognizing who we ourselves can be
will we be impelled and inspired to follow the path of the lions before us.
At the same time, we learned above, "In a place where there are no men,
endeavor to be a man" (2:6). When one realizes he or she has acquired knowledge and experience and is qualified to
give to others, he must certainly do so. Further, for better or worse, there
comes a time in our lives when people will look up to us and learn from our
ways, whether children or younger, less-experienced acquaintances and
associates. We must ourselves be prepared to assume that role -- as leader
and role model to others. At the same time, however, we must see ourselves
not solely as head, but also as tail. We should continue to look upwards
towards our own teachers and spiritual mentors for guidance and inspiration.
We may at times deservedly see ourselves as leaders and role models to
others, yet at the same time we must continue to be the same humble and
unassuming students we once were and must continually strive to be.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.