Image: The ancient synagogue of Arbel. (Photo by Bukvoed, via wikimedia.)
Nittai of Arbel says: “Keep your distance from bad neighbors, do not ally yourself with the wicked and do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7
We do not know much about Nittai of Arbel, but we have his words, and we can decipher them by thinking about his times. In the second century BCE, the Second Temple was still standing, and the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were on the throne. You’d think it would have been a great time for the Jews, but it was a time of treachery and bad behavior.
Nittai was a country boy who rose to be av beit din (vice president) of the Sanhedrin, working and teaching alongside the Nasi (president) Joshua ben Perachya. The two of them are remembered together among the Zugot, pairs of very early rabbinic teachers.
“Keep your distance from bad neighbors” and “do not ally yourself with the wicked” sound like bitter experience speaking. They might be a reference to Nittai’s experience with John Hyrcanus. The ruler, a nephew of Judah Maccabee, had such a taste for Greek culture that the Pharisees (the early rabbis) questioned whether he had sufficient Jewish values to function as high priest. He was enraged at the criticism and Joshua ben Perachya had to flee for his life to Egypt.
Nittai would have been left alone to lead the early rabbis, who were in deep disfavor for questioning John Hyrcanus.
“Do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – It must have been frustrating to see a bad ruler on the throne, and to feel that neither God nor humanity were doing anything to stop him. John Hyrcanus did a number of things that eventually caused grave trouble: he forced the entire nation of Idumeans to convert to Judaism, and he invited an alliance with Rome, which had a tendency to swallow its allies. He was popular in his time, but much of what he did led to disaster.
“Do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – If hope dies, then all is truly lost. The ancient rabbi, Nittai of Arbel, is telling us that we must continue to seek what is good, and to do what is right. We cannot control history, but we can be faithful to the values of Torah.