Avos 4, 23:
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar used to say: Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his deceased one is lying before him. Do not question him in the time of his vow. Do not try to see him in the time of his disgrace.
R’ Shimon ben Elazar is discussing head on a series of similar ethical guidelines. The Rambam in his commentary to this Mishna is extremely brief and he simply states that R’ Shimon ben Elazar is instructing us regarding the recorded ethical behaviors. Bothe Rashi and Rabeinu Yona explain a bit more intricately each one of these advisements. Rashi only goes so far as to say that the given interactions for the given situations mentioned in the Mishna will meet a futile response. Rabeinu Yona however, takes it a step further. He suggests that not only is each of these respective interactions ineffective, but that they will create negative intercommunications because they will likely trigger a reverse reaction. In one situation the results may even be irreversible such as regarding one who makes a vow (see Rabeinu Yona).
Going back to the Rambam’s comments on this mishna, the Rambam makes it seem as if these precepts are common sense. While one could argue that R’ Shimon ben Elazar was telling us something relatively obvious in order to emphasize its importance. Yet on the whole it would appear that the truly obvious Chazal left us to fill in and they relayed to us in Pirkei Avos the fundamentals of ethics. Additionally R’ Shimon ben Elazar’s teaching comes across as one theme. What is the underlying theme and message of this Mishna?
The natural inclination of a kind and caring person is to notice their fellow in duress and to want to help out. Often someone in a time of need will be happy to receive help and thus welcome it. R’ Shimon ben Elazar is discussing four specific scenarios in which the person involved would rather not receive someone else’s help. What is it that makes people in such situations not want to be helped?
When one is amidst a technical difficulty the issue at hand is how to remedy the technical difficulty. Therefore if someone else comes along and offers aid there isn’t any reason to turn it down. The other person helping can serve as the antidote or at least partial relief of the situation. What is unique about the four instances mentioned in the Mishna is that none of them can be remedied by a quick fix. They aren’t technical difficulties they are rather states of being that need to be recognized. One needs to calm down from their anger. One cannot simply drop it. Likewise one cannot bring back the dead, rather the mourner must somehow come to terms with the loss. Only once there is a certain conscious acknowledgement of these respective states of being can someone be able to accept appeasement, comfort, or advice. These situations are personal they are not interpersonal. When there is something external that can be amended or fixed the situation is extrinsic therefore it can be helped by an outsider. Whereas when something cannot be fixed by something external being fixed it by default can only be fixed internally. Thus it can only be fixed by the subject itself. It becomes an intrinsic struggle that can be remedied by one’s self alone. Once the initial step was made by he subject to come to terms with the state of being it has been somewhat remedied. It is at such a point that someone else may be able to step in and offer comfort and support. The comfort, support, or appeasement will give strength to the person in a negative situation. The ultimate salvation will be the person in duress’s own.
R’ Shimon ben Elazar’s advice is proverbial, but it’s deep understanding of human nature and it’s working that is the wisdom of this proverb.