(This post continues the discussion of Rabbi Yishmael’s verse in Pirkei Avot 13:12 or 16)

Rabbi Yishmael points to three main areas in which we disturb ourselves. The first is:

1 — Dealing with those in power over us:

For how many of us is the behavior of a boss, or a spouse, or a nurse, or some other “authority” a source of aggravation? Without denying the facts of their behavior, we can (should) focus instead on moderating our own reactions. “Moderating” or “regulating” could be a better translation of Patanjali’s Sanskrit “nirodhah” than “restraint” of our thoughts. Even though “restraint” might be the more literal translation, Patanjali doesn’t intend for us to grimly hold our minds quiet merely by willpower, as his subsequent sutras show.

Rabbi Yishmael says that we should be “קל” — “easy” or “light” with those over us. The same word is related to a verbal root meaning “to be unimportant.” The implication: Don’t make our own will more important than theirs. Why? Because doing so creates a conflict that almost always makes them angry, which leads only to our own upset, anger and/or anxiety in return. We, not they, have upset our own peace-of-mind.

“In all matters, when in the presence of the powerful, one should be submissive and not vaunt himself in give and take with them. The ethical philosophers also declare, ‘It’s risky lording it over lords’.” [11]

The struggle is sometimes in balancing such deference with our own feelings of self-respect and sense of personal dignity. Rabbi Yishmael implies that while we must defer to those in power over us, we must do so with sincere humility — i.e. without inner hostility and resentment:

“When dealing with a person entrusted [i.e. by G-d] with the leadership of an assembly, a group or community to which you belong, be amenable. Do not be difficult. Submit to his [or her] direction, and do not regard this submission as a loss of face.” [12]

I used to see this sign in some offices:

That about says it: Don’t create pointless conflict.

Of course, there can and should be peaceful ways to disagree with a boss. I remember a newly-appointed principal who wanted me to sign off on a procedure that could only be signed by a district-level administrator. I prefaced my correction to him with the word “respectfully,” in order to show that I wasn’t needlessly arguing with him, but that I’d be unable to follow his directions because of a protocol with which he was unfamiliar. There was no conflict, although he did check my report with a superior, himself.

Along the same lines, I knew someone who worked for an extremely mercurial supervisor at another NYC agency. My friend, although born Jewish, practiced Tibetan Buddhism. When he retired some years later, his comment about his boss was: “I learned a lot from her.” He meant that he’d learned a lot (spiritually) from making the effort to deal with the difficulties she presented in a way that did not disturb his own peace of mind. I think that Rabbi Yishmael would have approved.

On another level, Rabbi Yishmael also means that G-d has placed this person, as difficult as they might be, over us.

This is taught by the prophets again and again: those who oppress Yisrael/Israel are given the power to do so by G-d, for an ultimately good purpose. For example:

“…Assyria, the rod of My anger and the staff in whose hand is My indignation…” [13]

In deferring to the person in authority, it is ultimately G-d’s Will that we’re accepting. Accepting G-d’s Will, in sincere deference, we’re filled with G-d’s Peace.


[11] Meiri (Commentary of Rabbi Menachem b. Solomon Ha-Meiri), quoted in Goldin, Judah, trans. and ed.; The Living Talmud — The Wisdom of the Fathers; Mentor Books; © 1957 by Judah Goldin; p. 137

[12] Hirsch, Rabbi Samson Raphael; Chapters of the Fathers; trans. into English by Gertrude Hirschler; Feldheim Publishers, © 1979; p. 52

[13] Yishiayahu/Isa. 10:5-6