Image: Large shoe, person trying to fill it. Drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt, via

Recently a colleague quoted a 3rd century text in the course of a discussion:

“A friend can be acquired only with great difficulty.” It is from a 3rd century collection of midrash on Deuteronomy, Sifre Devarim.  I’d heard of it but never studied it. I was curious about the context – what kind of friend? what sort of difficulty? How could I resist?

Normally when I want to look up a rabbinic text, I go to my bookshelf. I don’t own a copy of Sifre Devarim, so I went online. I found a translation of the text, even though I could not find a copy of the Hebrew text. (That will have to wait until I visit the HUC library later this summer.) Still, here is a translation of the line in context by Dr. Marty Jaffee of the University of Washington. Note that the word chaver may be translated both “friend” and “study partner:”

Then HASHEM said to Moses:

Take for yourself Joshua b. Nun, a man with spirit” (Nu.27:18)—

take for yourself a virile type, like yourself!

Take for yourself” (Nu.27:18)—

this phrase actually implies an act of seizure,

for a study partner can be acquired only with great difficulty.

On this basis they taught:

A person should acquire for himself a study partner—

to declaim Scripture with him,

to repeat oral traditions with him,

to eat and drink with him,

and to whom he can reveal his secrets.

And, so He says:

“Two are better than one” (Ecc.4:9), and

“A three-ply rope will not soon be severed” (Ecc.4:12).

– from Sifre Devarim, Pisqa’ 305:1. Translation by Marty Jaffee.

So the rabbis of Sifre Devarim were asking themselves, “How did Moses train Joshua to be his successor?” Joshua needed to learn from Moses – how was that going to happen? The rabbis considered their own experiences with learning relationships. They may have been thinking about the critical problem of developing new leadership, and were looking to the life of Joshua to see how he grew into being the worthy successor to Moses.

Learning partnerships were very important to the rabbis. The word chaver that is usually translated “friend” in Modern Hebrew also meant “study partner” in Rabbinic Hebrew. We see in the texts that those were some of the most important relationships in their lives. There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a, about Honi the Circle Maker. Honi fell asleep for seventy years, and when he woke up, he discovered that his son was dead and so were all his old study partners. He died of grief. The story in Ta’anit ends thus:

Rava said, “That is what people mean when they say, ‘Either companionship or death.'”

A line in Dr. Jaffee’s translation immediately reminded me of another text, possibly the most famous text on the subject:

Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.  – Pirkei Avot 1:6

This text makes a distinction between mentors and friends, the same distinction we see in the Sifre Devarim text.

  • “Make for yourself a mentor [rav.]”  The verb here is l’aseh, to make or to do.We usually think of the mentor “making” the learner into something, but here the focus is on the learner. A person is a mentor or teacher because we choose to see that person in that way. If we are unwilling to learn from someone, it’s very hard for them to do much with us.
  • “Acquire for yourself a friend [chaver.]” This verb is liknot, to acquire. A man also acquires a bride as in Mishnah Kiddushin 1: “A woman is acquired in three ways and acquires herself in two ways.” While some modern readers focus on acquisition in the modern sense and think, “It’s like buying a cow!” as one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which one) pointed out, in this acquisition, the cow has to give her consent. Truly intimate relationships require mutual consent, be they marital or intellectual.
  • Take for yourself Joshua ben Nun.” (Numbers 27:18, quoted in Sifre Devarim, Pisqa’ 305, above) The verb is lakakh, to take or seize.

Joshua needed mentoring, if he was to succeed Moses as leader. However, one cannot force another person to accept instruction from a mentor. One can learn from a mentor only by choosing to follow their lead. Therefore Moses needed to acquire Joshua as a chaver, a friend, so that they could learn together what God needed to convey.

The rabbis recognize, though, it is difficult to make a new friend. You don’t just march up and say, “We’re going to be friends” any more than you might walk up to another person and say “I’m going to marry you.” (You can try, but the other person may decide you are creepy and just run away!)

Moses certainly could have marched up to Joshua ben Nun and said, “Lookit, fellow, God says I am supposed to take you and make you into the next leader of Israel.” However, Joshua might easily have said, “No thanks,” especially after seeing how that role had worked out for Moses. The 3rd century rabbis saw that there was more to the Numbers 27 text than Moses walking up and saying “Tag, you’re It.”

While the message is rather subtle, I suspect that they were trying to figure out how to nurture good leaders without scaring them off or winding up with blowhards who wanted leadership for bad reasons.

Have you ever been mentored by someone? Have you ever been a mentor? Does this text seem to you to have something to say about mentoring for leadership – if so, what?