Yehoshua ben Perachia and Nittai the Arbelite received from them. Yehoshua ben Perachia used to say: appoint for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend and judge each man in the scales of merit
Good friendships can be challenging to maintain but are essential for our emotional and physical health. Research shows that having close friendships helps boost self-esteem and happiness, provides a buffer to stress and mental illness, and even leads to longer life. In contrast, not having social connections impacts mortality at rates comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, alcohol use, obesity, and physical inactivity. Friends provide support during difficult times and imbue our daily lives with meaning.
In this Mishna, Yehoshua ben Perachia tells us three pieces of advice, each important on its own, yet each can also be seen as interrelated. At the outset he emphasizes the importance of appointing a teacher. The student must find a teacher and then conduct him or herself as a good mentee. The teacher-student relationship is so important that, if necessary, it even requires appointing a teacher who is technically on the same level of learning, if no greater teacher can be located (Rambam). Alternatively, the phrase can be read as “make yourself into a teacher.” This could be understood as choosing the responsibility to teach others (Midrash Shmuel), or to act as a mentor to others to guide them through their challenges (Chida). In a creative reading, Rabbi Moshe Leiter recommends that we look at ourselves as teachers, therefore elevating our own personal standards and encouraging ourselves to act in a more appropriate fashion (Mussar Avot).
In addition to encouraging the teacher-student relationship, Yehoshua ben Perachia encourages us to “acquire for yourself a friend.” The commentaries suggest several important benefits we can accrue by having good friends. Friends can help us learn better, provide us with sagely advice, motivate us to learn more, and encourage us to do more good deeds (Rabbeinu Yonah). We all have hidden blind spots that make it impossible for us to fully improve if left to our own self-awareness. Therefore, friends help us get a better picture of who we really are (see Meiri). Rambam distinguishes between three types of friends: a friend for benefit, a friend for enjoyment, and a friend for virtue. While there may be some value to the first two, he assumes that Yehoshua ben Perachia is referring to the friend of virtue. He explains that a friend of virtue exists:
when the desire of both of them and their intention is for one thing, and that is the good. And each one wants to be helped by his friend in reaching this good for both of them together. And this is the friend which he [Yehoshua ben Perachia] commanded to acquire; and it is like the love of the master for the student and of the student for the master.
According to Rambam, the first two statements of Yehoshua ben Perachia encourage developing relationships—one with a teacher, the other with a friend—in order to help us acquire virtue.
Noting the word choice of “acquire” a friend, the commentaries elaborate on the dispositions necessary to build and maintain friendships. By contrasting the word “appoint” (aseih) from the context of the teacher, and the word “acquire” (kenei) stated in relation to the friend, the connotation is that it is harder to build and maintain a friendship than to develop a relationship with a teacher. Rabbeinu Yonah provides several important pieces of advice for creating friendships, including, buying things or expending assets to get a good friend, using soft language and appeasement, forgiving insults, and being tolerant of errors. (An important caveat: This overly accommodating stance assumes that it is a healthy, reciprocal relationship, not one where one party is taking advantage of the other).
Yehoshua ben Perachia‘s final message both provides a useful strategy for obtaining a teacher and a friend (Sforno), as well as functions as a broader moral message, namely, to “judge each man in the scales of merit.” The more we judge others, the less likely we will be in maintaining our important relationships.
Many commentaries differentiate between three different categories of people: wicked, intermediate, and righteous. These commentaries contend that the message to judge favorably just relates to the middle group. We should always assume that righteous people are doing the right thing, and we should not give people who are known to be wicked the benefit of the doubt. The message is that if we witness most regular people doing something that seems questionable, we should give them the benefit of the doubt (Rambam, Meiri, and Bartenura). Sefat Emet disagrees and assumes that the Mishna is teaching us that we should even judge the wicked favorably. Additionally, he reads the statement of the Mishna not as “judge everyone favorably,” but as “judge the entirety of the person favorably.” Even if somebody has done something wrong, that doesn’t make them entirely bad. Taking it one step further, Bnei Yissachar argues that even sometimes if we “know” somebody did something wrong, the Mishna is telling us to learn to overlook the misdeed. Just like God, according to Kabbalah, restricts Himself in order to allow the world to function, so too, we should restrict our knowledge for the sake of social functioning. (Another important caveat: this assumes we are not overlooking behavior that is dangerous or negatively harming a third party).
In truth, we constantly make snap judgements. Without this ability, we would be overwhelmed with the plethora of information confronting us about other people and the world at any given time. However, we often err in our assumptions. Social psychologists have identified numerous cognitive biases and distortions that impair our judgement. As one example, the fundamental attribution error leads us to assume that when we do something wrong it is because it was a mistake or we were a victim of circumstance, but when other people do something wrong it is indicative of a broader character flaw they possess.
All of this points to the fact that more often than not, our negative judgements of other people tend to be wrong. Even in cases where they may be right, we still should be mindful not to judge others in their entirety as bad. Finally, bringing the three clauses of the Mishna together, we should strongly consider judging favorably for the sake of developing and maintaining friendships and relationships with our teachers.