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Pirkei Avot 2:9: Good, Better, and Even Better

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai had five disciples…He would recount their praises… Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an ever-increasing wellspring…

Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the sages of Israel were to be placed on one cup of a balance-scale and Elazar ben Arach was in the other, he would outweigh them all.

Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach is recognized here as a great Torah scholar, as an “ever-increasing wellspring” that never stops flowing and is constantly innovating new Torah thoughts and outweighs all the sages of Israel. In the next mishnah, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai asks his disciples for the best path a person should pursue in life and the path from which to most distance himself in life. Each of his five disciples provides a different answer and ultimately, Rabbi Yochanan agrees with Rabbi Elazar ben Arach: the proper way, the good path to pursue is that of “a good heart” and the path from which to distance is “a bad heart.” Rabbi Yochanan justifies his choice by stating that Rabbi Elazar ben Arach’s answers are all-inclusive and the replies of his colleagues are to be found in his own.

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach was also very learned in the Torah’s concealed dimension. After he expounded deeply upon the Workings of the Chariot, his teacher kissed him on his head and said, “How happy are you, O’ Abraham, that Elazar ben Arach is your offspring!”[1]

Despite all this, the Talmud[2] recounts that Rabbi Elazar ben Arach went to the hot springs of Deyomset, a place rich with the pleasures of this world, where he forgot all the Torah he had learned. The situation was so bad that when he returned and was set to read from a Torah scroll, his reading was riddled with serious mistakes. His friends saw what had happened to him, prayed for him, and requested mercy for him so that his knowledge would be restored. Their prayers were indeed answered, and Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach’s Torah knowledge returned to him.

The Path of the Restless

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach was characterized by restlessness. He was not content remaining in one place but always needed to progress and pursue new achievements.   His thirst was not quenched by the Torah’s revealed dimension, so he became an expert in its concealed dimension. He could not rest in one place but was always searching.  Hence, when he did attempt to remain and settle down in one place, his great intellect atrophied, and he forgot the Torah he had mastered. The moral is that one should not remain for long in the same place (spiritually). Instead, one should always seek to make progress and ascend to higher levels.

What’s Better than Good?

Elazar ben Arach was a tzaddik. But even a tzaddik has what to strive for. As the Zohar says, the Mashiach will come to make the tzaddikim into ba’alei teshuvah—not in the classic sense of someone who repents for their transgressions, as a tzaddik does not have transgression, but in the wider sense of working to elevate that which the tzaddik who only follows a straight path cannot touch. Thus, Elazar ben Arach is an example of a ba’al teshuvah, someone who has mastered the power of teshuvah and is able to constantly push above and beyond the foundations he was given by his teachers.[3]

Thus, the tzaddik finds the good to be sufficient, while the ba’al teshuvah always strives for more than the good—he strives to attain the better. Indeed, a well-known Chasidic aphorism states, “If the good is good, isn’t the better even better?”[4] In a similar vein, the Zohar states that the Mashiach will come to make the tzaddikim into ba’alei teshuvah,[5] in other words, he will teach them to not be content with the good, but to seek the better. We can begin to learn how to return to God Mashiach-style from Elazar ben Arach (אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ), the value of whose name is the same as, “good, better” (טוֹב יוֹתֵר טוֹב).

A Third Stage

So far, we have seen that the tzaddik who is set in his ways is “good,” while the ba’al teshuvah identifies with the search for the “better.” However, within teshuvah there are two distinct levels or types.[6] It may seem that we can suffice ourselves with the basic level of return to God out of fear, called “lower teshuvah.” True teshuvah, however, is endless and continues forever going “from strength to strength.” The second distinct level of teshuvah is known as teshuvah from love of God or “higher teshuvah.”

Thus, we can extrapolate regarding our search for the good and suggest that after the pursuit of the “good” and the “better,” there is another level of pursuit of the good that corresponds to higher teshuvah. Let’s call this the search for that which is “even better” (עוֹד יוֹתֵר טוֹב). This is the level that Mashiach himself pursues. Incredibly, the value of all three levels of good, “good, better, even better” (טוֹב, יוֹתֵר טוֹב, עוֹד יוֹתֵר טוֹב) is the same as “And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (וְרוּחַ אֱ-לֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם), which the sages say refers to the soul of the Mashiach.

[1]. Chagigah 14b.

[2]. Shabbat 147b.

[3]. See the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s explanation of our mishnah in Likkutei Sichot vol. 10, pp. 82ff.

[4]. See Sefer Hasichot –  5707, beginning of p. 62.

[5]. Following Zohar 3:153b. Quoted and explained in Likkutei Torah, Shemini Atzeret 92b and Shir Hashirim 50b.

[6]. See in length in Lectures in Sod Hashem LiYerei’av, appearing in Wonders Issue 33 and on as “Fundamentals of Chasidut.”

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