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 brief and simply states that R’ Shimon ben Elazar is instructing us regarding ethical behaviors. Both Rashi and Rabeinu Yona provide a bit more explanation of these recommendations. Rashi only goes so far as to say that intervening in the situations mentioned in the Mishna will meet a futile response. Rabeinu Yona however, takes it a step further. He suggests that not only would each of these respective interactions be ineffective, but that they most likely would provoke the opposite reaction from that desired. In one instance – that of the person making a vow – the results may even be irreversible (see Rabeinu Yona).
The Rambam’s comments on this Mishna make it seem as if these precepts are common sense. One could argue that R’ Shimon ben Elazar is telling us something relatively obvious in order to emphasize its importance. Yet on the whole Chazal do not state the truly obvious; in Pirkei Avos their intent is to relay the fundamentals of ethics. R’ Shimon ben Elazar’s teaching comes across as centering on a single theme. What is that underlying theme and message?
The natural inclination of a kind and caring person is to notice when one’s fellow is in distress and to want to help. Often someone in a time of need will be happy to receive help and welcome it. R’ Shimon ben Elazar is discussing four specific scenarios in which the person involved would rather not receive that 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 is amenable to 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 one’s anger. One cannot simply drop it. Likewise one cannot bring back the dead. Rather, the mourner must somehow come to terms with the loss. It is only once there is a certain conscious acknowledgement of these respective states of being that one can be able to accept appeasement, comfort, or advice. These situations are personal. They are not interpersonal. When there is an external factor that can be amended or fixed, the situation is extrinsic and can therefore be helped by an outsider. Lacking this, it can only be fixed internally – by the subject himself. It becomes an intrinsic struggle that can be remedied by one’s self alone. Once the initial step has been taken by the subject to come to terms with the state of being, the issue at hand 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 and help him pull through. The ultimate salvation will be the person’s own.
R’ Shimon ben Elazar’s advice is proverbial, but it goes beyond simple advice and reflects deep understanding of human nature.