BY RABBI BARRY COHEN
Who has been your teacher? Who has been your kindred spirit?
One Jewish teacher, Yehoshua ben Perachyah, instructs: “Provide yourself with a teacher; acquire a companion; and judge every person in the scale of merit.” Yehoshua lived in the lower Galilee in the 2nd century. We find his teaching in Pirke Avot 1:6, part of the Mishnah.
A plain reading of his text is that we should never isolate ourselves because solitude breeds error, failure and despair. In addition, we are to find a kindred spirit, someone we can study with and deepen our friendship. Lastly, Perachyah teaches that we should strive to view everyone positively and appreciate whatever they have to offer.
Why does Perachya instruct to acquire one teacher, as opposed to many? He likens one teacher to sewing one field with wheat, barley, olive trees and fruit trees; through this one field we derive great wealth and blessing. If we have multiple teachers, then we have too many fields each sewn with different crops; as a result, we are spread too thin and acquire little wealth or blessing.
I respectfully disagree with Perachya. Through my years, I have acquired multiple teachers, only to my benefit. My first teachers, understandably, were my mother and father. My next teachers were all musicians; through their lyrics and soulful melodies, I have acquired wisdom. The following only scratches the surface: Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Marc Cohn, Bonnie Raitt, Prince, Pearl Jam, John Lee Hooker, BB King, Aretha Franklin, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. Through pivotal moments in my life, they provided hope, inspiration, encouragement, compassion and love. We continue to travel, side by side.
In college, I acquired many other teachers. But one was Friedrich Nietzsche. Before anyone chastises me for following someone who allegedly inspired the Third Reich, let me emphasize: Nietzsche would have despised Adolf Hitler and everything he stood for. I learned much from Nietzsche, mainly his desire to question the evolution and repercussions of Western Morality.
In rabbinical school, I acquired many more teachers. One of my favorites was Elisha Ben Abuya, someone brave enough to indict the construct we call “Rabbinic Judaism.” I encourage you to read Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf, his exploration of Ben Abuya and the interdependence of reason and faith.
Another teacher was Rebbe Nachman of Breslov; he continues to inspire me with his passionate pursuit of faith. I also learned from Elie Wiesel, a survivor of our greatest tragedy; I am amazed by his demand for answers from God without rejecting God. And then there is Martin Buber and his landmark teaching of the “I-Thou” relationship; he helped me develop my personal theology, and my embrace of the idea that God is not an external entity but the result of sacred relationships.
Along the way, I have found many kindred spirits, of diverse backgrounds and backstories. Some were close companions, some were acquaintances and some were pains in the behind. But I learned that all of them had kernels of wisdom to share.
During these days when we still must maintain social distancing, we can heed Perachya’s teaching to acquire a companion. Too many of us, particularly our elderly, are suffering the tolls of social isolation. Let’s make an extra effort to reach out to the generation older than us who live alone; they are more than our “companion.” They remain our “teacher.”
So who have been your teachers? Your companions/kindred spirits? How are you better because of them?
I feel fortunate that I have acquired many teachers through the years. Each in their own way, they have ensured that my connection with both the Jewish and secular world continues to develop and evolve, and I continue to grow emotionally and spiritually as a result.
As the Community Chaplain for the Greater Portland Jewish community, Rabbi Barry Cohen serves as a resource for all Jews in our community. Call 503-892-7401 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.