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Friday, May 22, 2015

Devarim Nechmadim on Avos: The Sixth Mishna

Yehoshua Ben Perachia and Nitai Ha’arbeili

Once again we encounter a Jewish nation with two leaders. Yehoshua ben Perachia was the Nasi based in the metropolis of Jerusalem, although he was exiled for a time by his Sadducee neighbors. Nitai was the head of the court and based in remote Arbel where he fulfilled his dictum to “Stay away from bad neighbors“.

Yehoshua Ben Perachia encouraged interaction with others. H?e said to ‘Make a teacher, acquire a friend, and judge every person favorably”

The Rambam, commenting on this Mishna writes that the obligation to judge favorably does not extend to a wicked person who almost certainly is guilty. Elsewhere, the Rambam writes that it is proper to judge every person favorably without exception.

Perhaps this can be resolved by differentiating between actual judges, who are the focus of the commandment to judge favorably, and regular people whose obligation is extrapolated from that of the judges. It would make sense to say that a judge should not and may not defy logic to judge a man favorably. If he is a wicked man he is probably guilty. It is only in our private lives that we have the ability and the right to engage in mental acrobatics to judge our friends favorably.

A more accurate translation of the Mishnah would be to “judge the whole person favorably”. By judging the whole person we are bound to find some merit in their ways. The Bnei Yissoschar points out that G-d Himself gives us free choice. Surely our knowledge of another person’s worth is not more comprehensive than that of G-d. We need to recognize the ability of each person to choose to change.

The Student

Yehoshua ben Prachia is cited in a passage of Talmud that was unavailable for centuries as a result of Christian censorship.

The Talmud tells us to always bring people close to us with our right (stronger) hand even as we are pushing them away with our weaker hand. The Chiddushei Harim encourage us to visualize this statement: If we pull someone toward us with one hand while pushing them away with the other, we can literally turn them around. It is significant that the stronger hand is the one used for bringing closer. The Talmud says that both Elisha the prophet and Yehoshua ben Perachia erred in this regard. Elisha the prophet was too strong with his servant Geichazi and Yehoshua ben Perachia was too strong with one of his students.

Yehoshua ben Perachia had a student named Yeshu. One day, while they were traveling, Yeshu made an inappropriate comment. Yehoshua ben Prachia refused to speak with him for thirty days. On the thirtieth day, Yehoshua ben Perachia was going to accept his student with open arms but was in the middle of Shema when he entered. Seeing Yehoshua cover his eyes, the student thought that he would never be forgiven. He left to begin his own religion.

The Gemara teaches that Reb Yehoshua ben Perachia was too swift and harsh in pushing away his student. He should have emphasized his redeeming factors and brought him close with his stronger hand, even as he was pushing him away with his weaker hand.

As a result, we can imagine that Yehoshua ben Perachia was very aware of the importance of judging every person in a favorable way or more accurately, judging ‘the entire person’ favorably. Often, when we look at a person’s total experience we are more equipped to think kindly of them. If we know that a person has a difficult situation at home, we will be more tolerant of their crankiness when they are dealing with us.

Yehoshua ben Perachia emerged with a message. “Make yourself a teacher, acquire a friend, and judge the entire person so that you see them favorably.


There is something very deep here. Yehoshua ben Perachia is telling us to find mentors and to socialize, but at the same time he is telling us to find the skills and the searching within ourselves. We are the ones who need to make, acquire, and judge. We don’t always have our friends there to do it for us.

Avraham himself did not really have a teacher. He did seek council with Malki-tzedek and Mamre, but they weren’t mentors. That’s why he was told “לך לך”, “Go to yourself”

Nitai Ha’arbeli

Nitai Ha’arbeli led the generation together with Reb Yehoshua ben Perachia. They agreed in concept and disagreed in approach. Reb Yehoshua said: Make yourself a teacher and acquire a friend. Nitai Ha’arbeili said: Stay away from bad people and don’t associate with evil. Reb Yehoshua said: Judge everyone favorably; Nitai Ha’arbeili said: Evil people will eventually be punished.

Nitai Ha’arbeli lived in the rural town of Arbeil where the ruins of his Shul can still be seen. He did not want to be around people. He said ‘stay far from a bad neighbor’, and he did.

Who were the evil people that Nitai Ha’arbeli sought to avoid? A peek into Avos D’rebi Nosson gives us an insight into Nitai Ha’arbeili’s inspiration. He tells the story of a man who found Tzaraas (leprousy) on the walls of his home. The metzora gets his wall knocked down, presumably because he has sinned. The neighbor who shares a wall loses his wall as well - because he has a neighbor who has sinned.
Nitai Ha’arbeili understood that to live next to a metzorah is to share his guilt.

What kind of people become ‘Metzoras’?

There were ten possible causes, but the top three are Lashon Hora (Evil Speech), Haughtiness, and Stinginess. Basically, Nitai Ha’arbeili moved to get away from bigmouths, show-offs and cheapskates.

History tells us that these were exactly the type of who populated Jerusalem in the era of Nitai and Yehoshua ben Perachia.

I once brought my daughter to a doctor. There was a Mezuza on the door, a complete set of Talmud in the waiting room, A prayer on the wall and a nurse who could not stop saying Baruch Hashem. At the pharmacy, we found the Pesach Guide attached to the counter. It felt like a game of Mitzvah Monopoly.

I was jealous for a few minutes, perhaps rightfully so, but I stopped. Was my judgement based on the Mishna in Avos or on my own comfort level?

Life surrounded by like-minded indivduals is very nice, but (possibly) not an end in itself. When Nitai Ha’arbeili told us to have good neighbors, he wasn’t talking about living on the street with the biggest Lag B’omer bonfire or on the route of Kosher Ice Cream Truck. Nitai Ha’arbeili was telling us to find neighbors who are loving, humble, and generous. That is what the Metzorah did when he made contact with the Cohein and that is what both Nitai Ha’arbeili and Reb Yehoshua ben Prachia agreed was the key to our survival.

Devarim Nechmadim is a commentary on Pirkei Avos by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov. This essay is loosely based on his work as well as on the classes and writings of my father, Rav Yaacov Haber, Shlita.

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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at