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The Most Important Attribute is a Good Jewish Heart

yaakov weinbergerכה אב, תשסד12/08/2004

why does rabbi elazar says the good heart is the most important thing in jewish Believe?

I heard part of this lesson from Rabbi Sarig who read it in a book called Bnei Yisachar

 The Proverbs of the Fathers (Pirkey Avot) (said on Shabbat afternoons after the Mincha prayer during the summer months) chap.2 verses 10-13 relate that:

Verse 10. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had five outstanding disciples: Rabbi

Eliezer ben Horcunus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yose’ ha-cohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Nataniel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. Verse 11. He used to recount their praises: R. Eliezer is a cemented cistern, he doesn’t lose a drop (doesn’t forget any detail of his learning), R. Yehoshua, blessed is his mother (he was a very fine person, another explanation is that she used to bring him to the Beit Hamidrash from a very young age so that he would acquire the habit of learning), R. Yose’ is hasid, a most pious man, R. Shimon is fearful of sin, and R. Elazar is like a spring with ever increasing vigor. Verse 12. (In this verse there is a dispute who of the two disciples R. Eliezer, who doesn’t forget a drop of his learning, or R. Elazar, who is like a vigorous spring, always has new brilliant ideas, is the greater. 13. (So far we had an introduction to the two main disciples of R Yochanan ben Zakkai, and also the three others, now we will have an illustration of their genius). He ( R. Yochanan) said to them tell me which is the best path/habit a man should choose/adopt in life: R. Eliezer replied a good eye (which we interpret that a man should be happy with his lot and wish well to others), R. Yehoshua replied a good friend (a person should be a good friend to others and they will be good to him), R. Yose’ replied a good neighbor (a person should be a good neighbor to others and they will be good to him), R. Shimon replied an ability to foresee the consequences of his actions (as a result of this ability to foresee the consequences he would naturally adopt a good eye, be a good friend and neighbor), and R. Elazar replied he should adopt a good heart.

R. Yochanan then weighed their answers and said “I approve the choice of R. Elazar (the vigorous spring, he chose the good heart) for his choice, the good heart, includes all your choices.

We must of course agree with R. Yochanan and appreciate the wisdom of R. Elazar for so succinctly expressing the one choice that would include all the others and also improve on them. However we might be tempted to wonder is this the right place for such quizzes, and is there no better way to present this great lesson than this quiz method. This Perek continues in the next verse (14) and brings the converse case, which is the bad path/habit a man should avoid in life. The disciples reply in the converse to their choices of verse 13 (the numbering of these verses is true of the Pirkey Avot of the Siddur only, in the Mishne itself the text is more inclusive and all the verses are included in Mishnes 8-9. We must also wonder why the disciples chose the attributes they did, certainly the good friend and neighbor could be extended and covered by the commandment “love your fellow-men as yourself”, what are their choices based on?

Being very serious Torah scholars of one Rabbi all of them based their replies on the same principle. We have several rules in Torah study: 1. All important life attributes and occurrences have a basis in the Torah. 2. The first appearance of an attribute in the Torah is the most genuine one. Armed with these rules the disciples opened the book of Bereshit (Genesis) and looked for the first adjective of “good” and very soon, after the first thirty-one words, they found it. In verse 4 it says: “and G-d saw the light, saw that it was good; and G-d divided between the light and between the darkness”. Now the first disciple, R. Eliezer said “G-d saw that it was good”, G-d saw good, so the most important attribute is a “good eye”. The second disciple, R. Yehoshua saw that the light and darkness were interwoven, living side by side, and that was good, so he replied a good friend, R. Yose’ also saw that the light and darkness were interwoven but he saw them as neighbors, not friends, so he replied a good neighbor. R. Shimon saw that G-d divided between the light and darkness, (in Hebrew it says ויבדל, G-d separated, the numeric value of ויבדל is fifty-two, just like the number of Shabbatot in a year) that division must be for good or even for better, he reasoned. He understood that light and darkness were neither friends nor neighbors, they were adversaries, from this he deduced that here was action and consequence, and in such situation it is important to look ahead, so he replied an ability to foresee the consequences of actions. R. Elazar is in a special category. We said that he was characterized as a vigorous spring, always had new brilliant ideas. He thought the most important, the most inclusive attribute of a person was a good heart, but how to prove it? He counted the words that preceded the word “good” and found that “good” was the thirty-second word in the saga of world creation. This was proof indeed. Thirty-two in Hebrew is לב, heart, and this seemed most fitting, so he replied a person should have a good heart.     

This thought can be continued, the Hebrew word לב numbers thirty-two, the word   טוב numbers seventeen. Now we examine the number of days in the Sfirat Haomer, counting of the seven weeks, forty-nine days, between Pesach and Shevuot. This is a sad period commemorating the death of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples in a terrible plague. In the midst of this period we celebrate לג בעומר, Lag Baomer, when according to tradition the plague stopped. We count thirty-two days before Lag Baomer and seventeen days after it, this corresponds precisely to the numbers thirty-two of לב and seventeen of טוב.

Now we can go back and try to relate the choices of the disciples to their characteristics. We said that R. Eliezer doesn’t forget any detail of his learning, he is not innovative but remembers well, such a person would choose the first and obvious explanation, a good eye. R. Yehoshua, was a very fine person, such a person would choose the attribute of good friends. R. Yose’ was a hasid, a most pious man, naturally he would be a good neighbor. R. Shimon is fearful of sin, therefore it is good that he foresees the consequences of his actions, and R. Elazar is like a spring with ever increasing vigor, he would look for a brilliant new attribute, so he chose the heart, even though it is not mentioned in that specific verse, and he found a way to justify his choice.

Thus in this lesson we met Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his searching questions. We got acquainted with his five disciples, we saw why they chose the attributes they chose, and saw the juxtaposition between R. Eliezer and R. Elazar. We examined the important qualities a person should strive for, and lastly we found a new spiritual way to look at and appreciate Lag Baomer.

Indeed this lesson was given on Lag Baomer at a Bar Mitzva in the Ginot Shomron settlement of Israel.

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