Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said to his five disciples: “Discern which is the proper path to which a person should cling.”
After thought the first said: “A good eye”.
Another said: “A good friend”.
Another said “A good neighbor”.
Another said: “To one who thinks about the consequences of his actions”.
The last said: “A good heart”.
Rabbi ben Zakkai said – “I prefer the words of the last, for in his response is contained all the others.”
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was the greatest rabbi of his generation, living during the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. This was certainly a devastating event in the history of Judaism and it created a vacuum in the life of the people. In this time of disorder he asks an important question for every person in every time – what does the tradition suggest to us to value most in difficult times? What do we value most in the people we surround ourselves with (our friends, colleagues, family members, etc.)? What qualities are we looking for? And – what quality ought we to be striving for in ourselves?
A good eye. To be tolerant and generous towards others is essential in community life. Another sense of this – to be able to discern what is good and bad, what is of value and what is not.
A good friend. We all know that a good friend is worth their weight in gold to us over the lifetime of their friendship. A good friend listens to us, challenges us when we need to be challenged, supports us, and so much more. And, of course, we ought to strive to BE a good friend to others.
A good neighbor. We choose our friends but our neighbors sort of appear on their own! How valuable then is a good neighbor – one who is thoughtful and kind! And how important it is, especially in communities where we are in constant contact with those we live with and near, to BE a good neighbor to others. (By the way – can you name all of the neighbors on your block? Do you know the names of the children? Do you know who is sick, who is retired, where folks work?)
One who thinks about the consequences of his actions. We find that people who think before they talk and act make better choices for themselves and the community. Those who are impulsive and responding to their immediate desires do things they (and we!) regret. In the same way – we need to strive to be the sorts of persons who have the self-discipline to think before we act.
A good heart. We generally think the heart is the center of ourselves as persons – not only the seat of our emotions, but of our wills and actions. A good heart helps us to respond to the world around us, the people around us, in a generous and positive way. We value that in others – and we need to strive to have a good heart ourselves.
In a good heart all the others are contained. A good hearted person has a good eye, makes for a good friend and neighbor, and encourages self-discipline.