Monday, February 6, 2012

Scattered Souls

Our learning for this week was focused around the teaching from Pirkei Avot: “aseh lecha rav, u’kneh lecha chaver, v’hevey dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zchut. Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person with the scales tipped in his favor.”

When we learned this text over the summer, one of its aspects that I particularly liked was the use of the verb aseh (make) rather than kneh (acquire) in reference to finding teachers. A teacher, implies the text, is not discovered but cultivated. More so, anyone can be made into a teacher, as it is a process of relationship building rather than a swift act of obtaining. Avot d’Rabbi Natan reads this text a bit more literally. “Melamed she’ya’aseh lo rav kavua. This teaches us that a person should have a fixed teacher.” From this teacher, a student should learn Torah, Mishna, midrash, halachah, and aggadah. In this way, if a teacher forgets a detail when teaching Torah, for example, this detail will still ultimately be imparted to the student when the teacher teaches Mishna.

I know very few people who have a rav kavua, a fixed teacher. In my personal experience, I have not only had different teachers for Tanach, Mishnah, and the rest of my Jewish learning, but I also have a whole other set of teachers from whom I have learned English literature, calculus, physics, and history. Furthermore, there is no one rabbi I would go to for psak, nor is there one denomination or ideology to which I fully subscribe. In speaking about students like me, Avot d’Rabbi Natan asserts that “nimtza adam ha’hu…b’lo tov u’vracha. A man like this will be found…to have neither goodness nor blessing.” Great…

A really interesting note on the commentary offered on the original line in Pirkei Avot (a meta-commentary?) reads: “Ha’lomed Torah me’harbe anashim yesh lo pizur hanefesh lachsov al leshono v’daato shel kol achad v’achad. One who learns Torah from many people has a spreading out of the soul because s/he has to think of the words and opinions of everyone.” Avital and I often talk about the Bifurcated Existence. We go to school and spend all day solving for x and analyzing Shakespeare, and then we come home and spend hours on Skype learning geonic commentaries on Pirkei Avot. It’s pizur nefesh (spreading out of the soul) to an even greater degree than what is referred to in the text. We both talk about wanting college to be a “unified experience,” but I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that.

On the one hand, I love the idea of having a rav kavua. It would largely eliminate the agony of choosing and being forced to make decisions. Sometimes I hate this pizur nefesh, this feeling of always having a foot in both worlds and never truly belonging in either. But there is also something about it that fascinates me. We are studying existentialism now in school, and I love imagining what Kafka would think of Kohelet or how Camus would read a Reb Nachman text. During my physics class, I often ponder how halachah would be different if we applied the physics definition of work to the idea of melacha. So what are those of us with fragmented souls to do?

We were very excited that our blog’s epigraph appeared in this week’s learning, as an explanation of the “acquire for yourself a friend” dictum. Immediately following the text that spurred our pizur nefesh crisis, it is precisely this text on friend acquisition that may serve as the answer to our dilemma. I may not have found that one teacher, but I have found friends that have helped in the process of karev pzureinu, bringing in all my scattered musings. When I learn with Avital, she is just as quick to quote Rashi as Kant or reference academic thought on medieval Jewish life as she is to bring up modern philosophical or psychological thought. Maybe I will find unity by acquiring friends who are equally as scattered. When there is no longer a need to compartmentalize, when Talmudic and political examples are both fair game to back up a point, then living in two worlds feels slightly less lonely. Friendship has the potential to create that immersive community that I am always seeking. Maybe when I talk about college feeling unified, I mean that I hope to find a community composed of all those who lack a rav kavua but are looking to acquire friends, a community of all those with leaking, seeping, spreading souls.

When we learn about acquiring a friend, Avot d’Rabbi Natan tells us that a person should find a friend to “galeh lo kol starav, seter Torah v’setet derekh eretz, reveal one’s secrets to, both Torah secrets and everyday secrets.” The best, though, is when these secrets are one and the same, and then neither Torah nor academic pursuits exist in isolation. When a person leads a life that is so infused with Torah to its core that seter Torah and seter derekh eretz are indistinguishable, and then, on top of that, has a friend with whom to share this, then that person is surely ma’le tova u’vracha, full of goodness and blessings.


  1. Dear Maya and Avital,
    Thank you for posting this most enjoyable, thoughtful, and sweet commentary. I particularly loved your interpretation of "karev pezureinu." Davening those words will be far more meaningful to me in the future.
    You two should know how very proud and optimistic you make your teachers. Very very proud and optimistic.
    Also, what a writing gift! You'll do great in college; I am sure of it.

  2. Hi Jenny--
    I'm so glad you read and enjoy our blog! The writing on this one was, of course, Maya.
    For what it's worth, it makes me very optimistic to see that you (and many of my other teachers) have achieved some kind of temimut nefesh (Rabbi Josh Feigelson's excellent phrase for the opposite of pizur) that includes secular academic pursuits, torah and meaningful personal relationships-- it's reassuring to see that it's possible, but it also makes my own pizur nefesh much less because, as you know, I really do learn a very wide range of things from you.