The Gemara in Shabbos (13b) discusses the Mishna that describes how 18 new matters were learned at the home of Chananyah ben Chezkiyah ben Garon. By opening his home to many students, Chananyah helped to continue our rich tradition of Jewish learning. Interestingly, there are many other examples in the Talmud of great sages meeting at the homes of individuals in the community to discuss some of the most famous and important laws in Jewish life. For example the Gemara in Kiddushin (40b) describes how the sages met at the home of a man named Nizsah in the town of Lod to discuss the question of what is greater—good deeds or Torah learning.
It was precisely this environment of learning and Torah study in one’s home that Yossi ben Yoezer advised in the fourth Mishna of Pirkei Avot. “Yehi Beitcha Beit Vaad LaChachamim” “Make your house a meeting house for sages.” In response to Shimon HaTzadik’s teaching (see Mishna 2) that one of the pillars the world stands on is Torah, Yossi ben Yoezer offers the practical advice on how to accomplish this lofty goal. Make your home into a center of Torah; create an atmosphere that Torah scholars will be drawn to.
Yet the reality is that for many of us turning our home into a meeting place for Torah scholars is not practical. Many of us don’t have the resources (both financial and other) to create such an environment. Perhaps we don’t have the background to even know what or how to create such an environment. For that reason, Rav Chaim of Volozhin offers a different suggestion on that Yossi ben Yoezer is teaching. He writes that “every Jew should amass a personal Torah library that is as extensive as his budget will permit.” By surrounding ourselves in our homes with seforim, Torah books, we will have thus surrounded ourselves with the wisdom and teaching of many Rabbis and scholars from many generations before.
Perhaps another way for us to understand and actualize the words of Yossi ben Yoezer can be found in studying the teachings of the rest of this week’s set of Mishnas. In Mishna five, Yossi ben Yochanan teaches that not only must we make our homes into centers for Torah study, we must also make our homes Patuch Lirvacha, open wide such that they radiate kindness. Avraham Avinu opened his tent up from each side to welcome visitors from any direction. We too must open our homes to guests and extend generosity to the needy. Building on this idea we find in Mishna six that Yehoshua ben Perachya teaches that we must make teachers for ourselves, acquire for ourselves good friends and judge everyone favorably. Similarly in Mishna seven, Nitai HaArbeli teaches us the importance of putting ourselves in the right physical and spiritual environments by staying away from bad neighbors and wicked influences. It is critical that we build the right relationships in life with the right people.
These Mishna’s, therefore, paint an important picture of how to build a strong and healthy Jewish community rooted in righteousness, kindness and Torah study. Go out and acquire a friend. The Mishna doesn’t say that one should make friends, but rather ‘acquire a friend’ because it is a much more difficult thing to do. Building non-judgmental relationships with mutual respect takes a lot of work, but has the ultimate payoff. Besides for building meaningful friendships, make for yourself a Torah teacher so that you can become close enough to “sit at their feet.” Sitting at their feet need not be taken literally, but rather can mean to put yourself in a relationship with a teacher where you are not ashamed or embarrassed to ask questions. Rashi the famous French commentator writes that every person needs a competent mentor that can correctly transmit the tradition to avoid mistakes. Find teachers that can thus serve as role models for you and your family. Allow that experience to help you be a positive influence on others and thus bring positive change to the world.
The Gemara in Brachot (10a) tells the story how in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood there were once some rough characters that brought him great trouble. In order to improve this situation, Rabbi Meir prayed that these men should die. When she saw what he was doing, Rabbi Meir’s wife Bruriah said to her husband, “rather than praying for their death, you should pray that they repent.” Rabbi Meir did so, and in fact they repented. It is to this point that many commentators on this week’s Parsha criticize Noach for not doing enough to actively influence the men of his generation to do good. We have the power and ability to make a difference.
Based on this, the Midrash Shmuel interprets Yossi ben Yoezer’s teaching slightly differently to mean wherever Torah scholars congregate, make that your home. At the foundation of a strong community is a spiritual home filled with the beauty of Torah study. It is that foundation of Torah that serves as the basis for everything else that we do—Chessed, the kindness and relationships we have with other people, as well as Avodah, the worship and relationship we work to build with G-d. Creating and participating in this type of spiritual home is certainly something each of us can do.