An unpublished sicha from 5721/1961 is uniquely relevant to this time of uncertainty, shedding light on the power of positive thinking, friendship, and seeking mentorship.
By Rabbi Moshe Levin and Rabbi Aryeh Schottenstein
It is customary to study a chapter of Pirkei Avos each Shabbos following Mincha throughout the summer months.
As opposed to other tractates of the Mishnah that discuss basic legal halachic requirements, the teachings in Pirkei Avos are “Mili d’Chassidusa,” “words (matters) of piety” that instruct us on how to live piously, beyond the letter of law.
In his many explanations of Pirkei Avos, the Rebbe would often cite this distinction as necessitating deeper insight into the meaning of these teachings, that may at first glance appear to be matters of basic etiquette or common sense.
In this newly discovered transcription of a talk given by the Rebbe on Shabbos Parshas Shmini 5721 (1961), the Rebbe examines one such Mishnah from the first chapter of Pirkei Avos. The transcript is a shorthand record of the Rebbe’s talk and in this free translation we include explanatory background information and interpretation.
The Midrash (Beraishis Rabba 97) states: “Just as these fish grow in water, and when one drop descends from above they accept it with thirst like one who had never tasted water in their life, so too Israel grow in the water of Torah, and when they hear one new word of Torah they accept it with thirst as one who had never heard a word of Torah in their life.”
Hashem has blessed us with new insight from the Rebbe!
The discovery of an unpublished transcript of the Rebbe’s talk is an exceedingly rare event. By Divine providence, this latest discovery was made in the extraordinary time the world finds itself in now. At this unprecedented moment in history, as humanity globally quarantines and distances from friends, family and others, we are blessed with the discovery of this talk containing the Rebbe’s insight into the nature of human relationships and friendship.
May it serve to bring us all closer together than we have ever felt before.
Sicha of Shabbos Parshas Shmini 5721 (1961):
1) As it is customary during the summer months to study Ethics of our Fathers (Pirkei Avos), we will explain a Mishnah from the chapter being studied this shabbos.
יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת. (אבות פ״א מ״ו)
Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Prachia would say: Assign for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably. (Chapter 1:6)
The Mishnah presents [three] difficulties that require explantation:
A) “Assign for yourself a teacher”: We all need a mentor to help us discover our unique purpose and mission in this world. What is Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Prachia teaching us in this Mishnah that we don’t already know?
B) “Acquire for yourself a friend”: Do we need to be taught that friends are important? Even a dedicated scholar requires at least one friend to study Torah properly, as the Talmud teaches: Torah is only acquired [properly understood] through study in a group. (Berachos 63b)
C) “Judge every person favorably”: How do we benefit a person of questionable character by judging them favorably? G-d already knows the true nature of their guilt or innocence?
2) The explanation:
[Through the Rebbe’s closer examination of the Mishnah’s precise wording we discover the deeper meaning behind its seemingly simple instructions.]
When the Mishnah says עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב we loosely translate it as “Assign for yourself a teacher.” However, the word עשה can also mean “coerce” or “force.” In the laws pertaining to the extent of a Jewish court’s responsibility to pressure someone to fulfill their charitable obligations we find the word עשה used in this manner, “מעשין על הצדקה”, “concerning charity they may apply pressure.” (Beit Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 248)
What then does it mean to “Force yourself to find a teacher”?
The Talmud states: “Only if a teacher is similar to an angel [malakh] of G-d, then seek Torah from his mouth, but if he is not pure and upright, then do not seek Torah from him.” (Moed Katan 17a)
A person may question whether he can really be expected to find a teacher of this lofty caliber and instead choose to wait for such a teacher to appear at his door. In the meantime nothing is learned.
This is the meaning of forcing oneself to find a teacher. A Jewish court, under certain circumstances, is obligated to coerce a person to satisfy their charitable obligation, even if it requires applying the degree of pressure necessary to coerce someone to donate money they would have otherwise used for food.
Our Mishnah is communicating the importance of finding a Torah teacher by instructing us to undertake the search for a teacher with a sense of urgency and powerful resolve. The court uses extraordinary pressure to cause a person to part with money that they could have otherwise been used for food. The Mishnah is telling us to employ this same degree of pressure within oneself to find a proper Torah teacher.
The Mishnah continues “Acquire for yourself a friend.” People part with their money only to acquire things that are of value and dear to them. An expensive purchase indicates the item is especially precious. It is for this reason a later Mishnah (6:10) uses the expression “G-d acquired five things in this world… Torah… Heaven and Earth… Abraham… Israel… the Beis HaMikdash”. The Mishnah connotes G-d’s special love for these five by referring to them as His acquisitions.
The Mishnah is not simply telling us having friends is a good idea. Rather, it is communicating how deeply we must appreciate our friendships. Like an “acquisition” we must invest ourselves, our time and money into these relationships, a friend is precious.
By contrasting the way the Mishna advises forging a relationship with a teacher vs. a friend we gain further insight into the unique nature of these relationships.
The Talmud rhetorically cautions “Can one have any degree of familiarity with Heaven?” (Brachos 34a), i.e. we must always maintain our reverence of G-d. Regarding a teacher the Mishnah instructs, “Let the reverence for your teacher be as the reverence of Heaven” (Avos 4:12).
A student’s respect for a teacher is essential to building a successful relationship. The Mishnah alludes to the centrality of this respect by instructing students to “force” themselves to find a teacher. When we are forced to do something we are in effect ceding to authority.
However, this is very different to a friendship. Key to friendship is a sense of familiarity, love and closeness. Acquiring a friend means to invest our time and energy into nurturing and supporting a friend. It is only when we hold our peers near and dear, can we truly gain as well as appreciate their friendship.
“Judge every person favorably.”
By first examining the negative consequences of lashon hara, speaking ill of another, we can explain why it is so imperative to do the opposite and “Judge every person favorably.”
Although lashon hara, slander, may seem innocuous [after all it’s just words and not physical harm], it is in fact quite a severe sin.
The harm caused to another person by slander is twofold; a) the consequences they suffer on account of the slander, e.g. shame, loss of business etc. b) just by speaking negatively of another person we amplify the degree to which that negativity is manifest in the person being slandered. Slander accentuates and reveals that person’s negative character traits.
Independent of any subsequent consequences, our words have the power to impact reality.
Conversely, when we refrain from passing judgement and instead choose to see others in a favorable light, our positive thinking has the power to positively influence their reality. When we judge others favorably we awaken and reveal their goodness.
3) The Mishnah addresses the three distinct types of relationships that pertain to the entire spectrum of human relationships. There are the people we look up to (teachers), our peers (friends), and those on a lower level (who we must judge favorably).
This protocol originates in the Sefiros .
In hishtalshelus, the chain of creation, there are three facets to each Sefira. A Sefira receives from the Sefiros above it, serves its own purpose, and influences the Sefiros beneath it. 
This teaching was revealed to us by the author of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Prachia, whose personal life experience endowed him with the ability to give us insight into the nature of all relationships.
As president of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Prachia was the leader of the Jewish people. In his time, King Yannai wanted to be appointed High Priest, however, the sages questioned his lineage. When his lineage was found acceptable, he exacted revenge by killing almost all the sages of Israel.
The Talmud relates:
When King Yannai was killing the Sages, Shimon ben Shetach was hidden by his sister, Yannai’s wife, while Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya went and fled to Alexandria of Egypt. When peace was made between Yannai and the Sages, Shimon ben Shatach sent him the following letter: From myself, Jerusalem the holy city, to you, Alexandria of Egypt. My sister, my husband dwells within you, and I am sitting desolate. (My teacher is in Egypt while I am in Jerusalem, and I am lonely without him.)
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya said: I can learn from it that there is peace, and I can return. (Sotah 47a)
He had a time period of leadership, a time when he was brought down, and ultimately his friends uplifted and restored him to greatness.
By Divine Providence, there are many pearls of wisdom in this sicha that are uniquely relevant to this time of uncertainty.
Many people have questions but are unable to find answers because they’re overwhelmed with the new reality of day-to-day living, compounded by the challenges of quarantining.
In this talk, the Rebbe tells us that we must commit to seeking counsel and mentorship, even in the face of difficult circumstances.
The new realities of pandemic illness רח'”ל, social distancing and quarantine has many of us living in lonely isolation, physically separated from our friends and family. The Rebbe reminds us how through the power of friendship we are capable of uplifting each other, and how important it is to reach out and offer support to one another.
Living 24/7 for an extended period of time in close proximity with family presents its own challenges. It can put strain on even the happiest of marriages, relationships with parents, children, and siblings.
Left unchecked, feelings of loneliness can easily lead to a negative frame of mind, self-pity, loathing or apathy.
In this newly discovered sicha, the Rebbe asks anyone willing to listen, to remember the power of positive thinking. To appreciate how impactful our thoughts can be, both to ourselves and to others.
May we merit to experience the deepest love and closeness of all the Jewish people, in body and spirit, with the immediate, true and complete redemption.