[The five students of Rabban Yochanan each] said three things. Rabbi Eliezer said: 1) May the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. 2) Do not anger easily. 3) Repent one day before you die. Warm yourself before the fire of the Sages, but be wary of their coals lest you get burnt; for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.
The most stable geometric shape is a triangle. The most stable geometric figure is a tetrahedron, a three-dimensional triangle. A photographer or a surveyor mounts his instrument upon a tripod for maximum stability. Architectural and engineering designs depend upon the triangle to hold up buildings, bridges, and aircraft. And since the nature of the physical universe reflects the nature of the spiritual universe, we can expect to find a profound spiritual significance attached to the number three.
And so, just as the Men of the Great Assembly taught three primary ethical ideals, just as Shimon HaTzaddik taught the three pillars upon which the world stands, and just as Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel taught the three things upon which the world endures, so too did each of the main disciples of Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai condense the moral lessons they absorbed from their rabbi into three foundational principles.
The incomparable Torah genius and kabbalist Rabbi Yehudah Lowe (best known as the Maharal, creator of the mysterious golem that protected the Jews of Prague in the 16th century) explains the relevance of the number three in our mishna. To achieve spiritual harmony, a Jew has to achieve perfection in his relationship with the Almighty, with society, and with himself.
A person who refines his behavior so that he earns the admiration and affection of others while neglecting his relationship with God is ultimately serving only himself, affecting a veneer of respectability without acquiring genuine integrity.
Conversely, a person who attempts to cleave to his Creator while neglecting his relationship with his fellow man ultimately fails to do either, since God is pleased only with those who serve the community.
Finally, even if a person perfects his service of God in tandem with earning the respect of others, but spiritual conflict rages within him, then he has not achieved the inner harmony of the complete Torah Jew.
May the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own
The first leg of Rabbi Eliezer's tripod of spiritual well-being may be the easiest to understand. Perhaps the most universal emotional need is the longing for appreciation. We all want respect; we want to be recognized for who we are and what we have accomplished; we can't tolerate being taken for granted.
By looking at our own most profound needs, Rabbi Eliezer advises us, we can best know how to give others what they most desire. Just as we demand appreciation and recognition, so too should we demand from ourselves that we show appreciation and recognition for those around us. To express gratitude for even small favors, to give praise for a job well done, to acknowledge effort even in failure, to offer a compliment or greet an acquaintance with a smile -- every such act accords a small measure of honor and, collectively, many such acts foster a more civilized, emotionally healthier society.
Do not anger easily
The Talmud equates anger with idolatry and declares that an angry person will forget his wisdom. Maimonides asserts that anger is the most destructive of all character traits and that, whereas a person should seek to moderate all other qualities, one must go to the furthest extreme to expunge anger.
Why is anger so much worse than other traits? The key to understanding anger lies in recognizing the root of anger.
Jewish tradition teaches that the Almighty guides all events through divine providence. Working behind the scenes, God orchestrates all events so that, despite the free will possessed by every human being, every event that happens to every individual is an expression of the divine will. It was with this in mind that King David introduced so many of his Psalms with the phrase, For the Conductor.
We all experience events that test our patience: the flat tire on an empty highway; the glass of wine spilt across a fresh table cloth; the toothpaste tube squeezed in the middle by the annoying person who used it before us. Less often, but more significantly, events sometimes test our faith: the embezzlement of our retirement fund by corrupt executives, sickness and suffering, death of innocents. We don't understand, so we respond with anger.
With whom are we angry? If every event is guided by the hand of providence, then the Almighty is ultimately the One responsible. And if we are angry with what God has allowed to happen, then either we believe that we know better than He does how events should unfold, or else we believe that He is not truly in control.
Such thinking is symptomatic of supreme arrogance, for the one who indulges in such thoughts credits himself with a comprehension of the universe surpassing that of the One who created the universe. With all the advances of science and technology, modern man's increased understanding of his world has produced more questions than answers. What is the origin of life? How does the atom function? What is thought? What is feeling? What is imagination? If we don't possess the answers to these questions and so many others, by what right do we demand that God's actions conform to our limited comprehension? And how can a person in whom these doubts and uncertainties roil unceasingly ever hope to attain inner peace and harmony?
The person who truly believes in the hand of providence, however, enjoys the same security as the patient who has placed his trust in the most respected surgeon or the client who has retained the most accomplished attorney. It is not blind faith that gives him inner peace, it is the surety that the person in whom he has placed his trust is the most trustworthy he can find. His trust in another provides him with the greatest measure of peace within himself.
Repent one day before you die
"But no one knows his day of death!" protested Rabbi Eliezer's students. "Repent every day," their teacher answered, "since you may die tomorrow."
Translated contextually as "repentance," the Hebrew word tshuva literally means "return." Since the Torah is God's handbook for drawing close to Him by being righteous, when we transgress the laws of the Torah we distance ourselves from the Almighty. By recognizing what we have done, regretting and admitting our transgressions, and committing ourselves to genuine change, we "return" to our former, spiritually healthy relationship.
A person sensitive to that relationship with the divine, who recognizes that his own spiritual well-being depends upon it, will examine his actions every day of his life and, upon discovering any indiscretion, will do everything within his power to restore it. Such a person confirms continually the sanctity and constancy of His relationship with God which, together with his relationship with fellows and with himself, form the foundations of spiritual harmony.
Warm yourself before the fire of the Sages, but be wary of their coals lest you get burnt
Rabbi Eliezer's final comment, although the longest, is not counted among his three principles. Rather, having enumerated those principles, he concludes with words of advice to guide us in their implementation.
The instruction book for perfecting one's relationship with God, with is fellows, and with himself, is the Torah. But the Torah is more than a book -- it is a tradition, and it is a way of life. As such, it cannot be learned only through study. Just as the mastery of any trade requires apprenticeship under the guidance of a master, so too does the integration of Torah ideals into one's personality require the same kind of apprenticeship, to absorb not only ideas and information but also spiritual sensitivity.
Through personal contact with sages and teachers, one comes to appreciate Torah as something more than a "cold" academic discipline by "warming" himself by the spiritual fire that burns within a true Torah master.
But there is a danger. Since familiarity breeds contempt, the closer a student becomes to his teachers in Torah study and application, the more easily he may forget the proper respect due teachers from their students. The serious student of Torah must understand that it is not merely the man who warrants respect; it is the Torah wisdom he possesses and teaches to others. To violate the boundaries of respect may therefore bring sharp rebuke from a teacher, rebuke as sharp as a scorpion's sting, as deep and as painful as the bite of a fox or a serpent.
To learn well, a student must respect and honor his teacher, just as he respects glowing coals that offer warmth and light, but which can also inflict pain and injury to the one who approaches too near.