Pirke Avot 1:6

Appoint a teacher for yourself;

Acquire a friend for yourself;

and judge everyone favorably.

From a rabbi / sage who lived about 150 years before Jesus.

Appoint a teacher for yourself. The advice is to seek out someone that you will honor as a guide for your study, for your life choices.  It will be someone whose wisdom you will respect, whose words and suggestions you will take seriously.   Someone whose praise AND whose corrections or suggestions will have weight for your life.  It may take a year or even more to find just the right person that you will want to work with.

You must take an active role in finding this teacher.  This does not imply disrespect to those persons who think they are already in position to teach you (e.g. a pastor in your home parish).  You certainly may, and probably should, get input from a lot of places.  But the sage advises – choose a teacher yourself.  In doing so you will “own” your relationship and will be more likely to accept the guidance that you receive when it is difficult.

No one knows everything.  When you seek your teacher look for a person who has a deep appreciation of our religious tradition and heritage and lives it out in their own lives.  You are not just looking for book knowledge!  Such a person is often called a “spiritual director” in our Catholic tradition.

Can’t I just study by myself?  Sure you can!  But self study alone  leaves us open to reading our own established ideas and opinions and biases into our reading and study.  It becomes a closed loop.  A teacher will help guide us and break through that sort of thinking.

In the Jewish tradition there are lots of opinions – it can be said (and is) “two Jews, three opinions!”.  Jewish tradition, distinct from Roman Catholic tradition, preserves the minority opinions of other teachers on rulings of the law.  So nothing is ever completely black or white.  This makes the role of a good teacher all the more important.  Rabbis differ on what is OK and what is not, on what  a good choice might be in this situation and what is not so good.  Choose your teacher wisely!

Doesn’t this lead to an easy relativism?  Couldn’t one just keep seeking out rabbis to get the opinion you want to hear?  That is not the way the system works.  Once you choose a teacher and ask the questions you have – you are obligated to follow the opinion you are given!  No shopping around.

This sort of situation is true in Christian churches as well.  Our tradition is not nearly as definitive as is often thought.  There have been minority opinions on doctrine, on morality, and in approaches to spirituality.  It is always possible to find a current / teacher within the larger stream of Catholic thought which is suitable for you.

Acquire a friend for yourself. Sounds  a little funny doesn’t it?  We tend to think that friends come along by chance and we either hit it off or we don’t.   The sage is not talking about our casual acquaintances.  Just as we ought to seek out a teacher to guide us on our spiritual and religious journey – so too we must deliberately seek out companions to journey with.  Someone who shares your same interest in growing closer to God and to the mystery of life.

This person (or these persons) can debate with you, discuss with you, challenge you.  This will be someone to study with and share your questions and concerns with.

A good friend will help you by holding you accountable for your study and effort – AND – that you begin to actually live differently as a result of what you are discovering.  A good friend won’t let you continue to slide by the hard work of actually integrating what you learn and changing your life.

A good friend like this is priceless and hard to find.  The sages advise us – seek one out and then listen!

Judge everyone favorably. The sage is not at all suggesting that “anything goes” or “judge not lest you yourself be judged”.  In this context the connection with the previous two phrases gives us a clearer sense of what is meant.  As you search for a teacher and a friend (s) give people the benefit of the doubt.  Wisdom is possessed by almost everyone to some degree – we can learn something from almost everyone.

Appreciate all people as gifts from God, as God’s children.  If they came from God (and they did!) then some how, some way, at some time – they reflect something of the divine that might help us.

If we are slow to judge others negatively we may discover a treasure of wisdom in an unlikely place.  As we have noted before – your teacher and your friend (s) may not have formal degrees.

It all comes down to this.  Our life is a journey.  We can greatly benefit from choosing a teacher who will help us explore what it all means.  We can greatly benefit from having companions on our way who know us and understand us, who hold us accountable.  And in our choosing – don’t pre-judge potential teachers and companions.  Look at all God’s children with open eyes and open hearts to learn something from them.  Perhaps your perfect teacher is a ‘diamond in the rough’!

Our tour guide in France recently was Veronica.  She showed us lots things and places, taught us to see things that we would have certainly missed on our own.  And it was lovely to travel with so many good friends to share the experiences and the food and the time with!

Questions to reflect on and share on if you like:

  1. Who have you learned “life lessons” from?  When and how?
  2. Can you identify someone or some time in your life that you’re glad you didn’t pre-judge (based on race, appearance, age, status …) too quickly?
  3. What qualities do your best friends have that stand out for you?  Do these best friends share with you in spiritual / religious / life-wisdom dimensions?