Honor, Repentance & Discipleship

They [the students of Rabbi Yochanan] each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own and be not easily moved to anger. Repent one day before your death. Warm yourself before the fire of the sages … (m.Avot 2:15)

In this mishnah we begin learning the primary teachings of Rabbi Yochanan’s star pupils. According to our mishnah, they each taught three primary lessons. We begin with Rabbi Eliezer. Let’s examine each of his teachings and see how they compare to that of our Master, Yeshua.

Honor Human Dignity

The first of R’ Eliezer’s teachings is, “Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own and be not easily moved to anger.” At first, these two statements appear disconnected. However, they are to be understood as a single unit. This is a compound statement referring to two facets of the same topic, what we would proverbially refer to as “two sides of the same coin.” Rabbi Twerski, following the lead of R’ Ovadia, explains how these two are related by saying, “A person who is concerned about protecting the dignity of another will be hesitant to lose his composure, lest he insult the other person in his rage.” Yeshua also connects anger with the dignity of others saying:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21–22)

According to the Talmud (b.Berachot 19b), human dignity is so important that it can sometimes supersede Scriptural prohibitions. Does this sound shocking? To the disciples of Yeshua it should be a given. One of Yeshua’s primary concerns while he walked among us was that of human dignity. He was constantly having run-ins with Pharisees of Beit Shammai over the strict letter of the Torah in relationship to compassion and human dignity. One of his more noteworthy encounters is in Matthew 12:1–8, where he makes a kal v’chomer (“light to heavy”) argument showing that although the Sabbath prohibitions are indeed weighty (they carry the death penalty in the land of Israel under a theocracy), they take a back seat to human dignity. Rabbi Eliezer’s first teaching, therefore, agrees with that of our Master.


R’ Eliezer’s second primary teaching was, “Repent one day before your death.” What does this mean? It means every person should live a life of constant introspection and repentance, rather than waiting until a convenient time, because death is without warning and we are not promised tomorrow. Although the wording is different (and a bit confusing at first glance), the message is essentially the same as that of Yeshua’s gospel proclamation: “Repent! Because the Kingdom is at hand!” Throughout his ministry, this message was at the core of Yeshua’s teaching. Unfortunately, many of Yeshua’s disciples today either misunderstand or totally ignore his call to continued repentance. Yeshua understood the principle behind the midrash that says:

My sons, present to me an opening of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages can pass. (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:3)

Rabbi Eliezer’s second teaching, therefore, also agrees with that of our Master.

Perpetual Discipleship

Rabbi Eliezer’s final instruction to his disciples was to “warm yourself before the fire of the sages.” In other words, always be willing to learn from those who have something to teach you. However, being able to receive instruction from others requires humility. In order to be a disciple we must have humility. We can never feel that we have “arrived,” because a disciple is a perpetual learner. After all, this is the very definition of a talmid, a disciple. A disciple is one who is a student by nature.

As disciples of Yeshua we should have a constant and insatiable thirst for truth. We must constantly be on the look-out for teachers who will be able to pour into us wisdom. We must warm ourselves before the fire of those who would instruct us and help us to better implement the teachings of Torah in light of Yeshua’s interpretation and example. May we always take the words of R’ Eliezer to heart and honor the dignity of others, live a life of repentance, and be a continual disciple of both Torah and our Master.