Keep far from a bad neighbor;
Do not associate with the wicked;
And do not despair about affliction.
—Nittai of Arbel
Keep far... We could approach a bad neighbor in hopes of improving relations, or be tempted to
associate with a person we know is of bad character because it seems we will benefit. Nittai warns us against
both. An early commentary interprets “the wicked” as meaning the wicked within ourselves, so that “do not
associate with the wicked” warns us to heed only the voice of our better nature.
Do not despair... This saying has a double meaning. One, we should not despair because we do not see the
wicked suffering divine punishment. Two, we should also not despair because of the afflictions of disease
and disasters which befall the innocent, including ourselves and those we love.
Divine judgment is a central but troubled belief of the sages. The issue, which we first encountered in 1:3,
is the theme of the book of Job in the Bible, and is returned to again and again from different angles
throughout Avot. Of the many calamities which have befallen the Jewish people, the Holocaust, which is in
the memory of many living today, is probably the most troubling. The suffering of the innocent and good is
harder to understand and more difficult to bear than is the prospering of some of the wicked.
The Holocaust did cause some to ‘despair about calamity’, and to abandon any role of the spiritual in their
lives. But many others did not. Why and how to love a God who allows the suffering of the innocent is the
most serious challenge to Jewish theology. Rabbi Harold Kushner, after losing his young son to a tormenting
congenital illness, wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He comes to the conclusion that God is
limited in his power, and has compassion for the sufferer. Others, including here in Avot (5:11), try to
find reasons why God would visit afflictions on the seemingly innocent. Job in the Bible and Rabbi Nattai
in Avot (4:19), confess bafflement but love God none the less.
The decision not to despair, to embrace life and love the world and its Creator is essentially the decision
to be a religious person in the Jewish way. This embracing of life includes the effort, by the ethical actions
urged in Avot, to uplift life and make it worth living.
The religiosity of Christianity and Islam, the daughter religions of Judaism, resembles Jewish religiosity.