Trust, Learning, and Friendship

Mishnah 1:6 of Pirkei Avot contains another of the most familiar quotes used in Jewish education:

.יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת

Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.”

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:6

A close reading of this text raises many interesting questions, and one of my favorite is to think about the relationship between the three phrases – how exactly are finding a teacher, acquiring (buying) yourself a friend, and giving others the benefit of the doubt connected?

The most common interpretation involves linking the concepts, particularly learning and friendship. We do know that human learning is a fundamentally social activity — recent research shows that for most, students learning collaboratively remember facts more accurately and easily than those learned alone. Jewish tradition has known this for years, and in fact the most familiar form Jewish learning takes from Rabbinic times is that of the chevruta (pair/friend in Aramaic). This relationship isn’t just a lab partner, but connotes a deep relationship of challenge and support in growth and learning.

For most of us, friendships take a variety of forms, from casual acquaintance to life-long connection. I would bet that most of us find that our deepest friendships do indeed include an aspect of learning — those people we value the most in our lives can often be those who both challenge and support us in our journeys of growth. They do so benevolently because they love us, and we trust them to do so because we know that they hold the third part of this statement at all times — judging us positively and giving us the benefit of the doubt.

Trust is ultimately the theme that connects all three of the phrases in this Mishnah. Without it, we don’t engage in meaningful relationships with teachers or friends (or friends who are teachers), and we can’t learn to give others the benefit of the doubt. As we move towards the introspection of the High Holidays, it is worth taking a moment to consider the role of trust in our relationships with those around us. Do we offer our trust? Is it reciprocated?

This Shabbat, I encourage you to open a conversation with your children about trust. You could begin by asking them to help you think about what the word “trust” means, and what it looks like and feels like to trust or be trusted. Who do they trust? Why do they trust those people? Who do you trust?

May we all enter this Jewish New Year of 5778 with increased openness to trusting one another, despite acknowledging all the very real obstacles that stand in our way.

Shabbat Shalom,