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Parshas Shemini (5770)

Pirkei Avos: The Torah's 6-Week Crash Course in Jewish Ethics

From at least the era of Saadia Gaon (10th century C.E.), it has been the time-honored custom of the Jewish people to study one chapter a week of the tractate Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) on each of the six Sabbaths between Passover and Shavuos. (The tractate is comprised of six chapters. However, the prevalent custom nowadays is to continue studying a chapter a week all through the summer months until Rosh Hashanah, thus completing the entire Pirkei Avos a number of times.)

Pirkei Avos is unique among the tractates of the Talmud. While all the other tractates focus primarily on clarifying the Halachah (Jewish law) in all areas of the Torah, only Avos deals exclusively with the Hashkafas HaTorah (Jewish philosophical worldview) of our Sages, with their lessons for life, and with the morals and ethics they wished to impart to their students and to all of us.

According to our tradition, the 49-day period between Passover, when our ancestors left Egypt, and Shavuos, when they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and received the Torah, was a time of spiritual preparation and growth, as the Jewish people wanted to make sure they were on the right level to appreciate the Torah they were about to receive. As such, these weeks are the perfect time to learn Pirkei Avos, the study of which is sure to enhance and elevate our understanding of G-d, His Torah and ourselves.

This Shabbos afternoon, Jews all around the world will begin to study the first chapter of Pirkei Avos, either in a class taught by their Rabbi/Rebbetzin/teacher or on their own. [For those who are not familiar with – or who don’t have easy access to - the actual text of Pirkei Avos and its many and varied commentaries, I would like to recommend a delightful and insightful commentary (including text) on all six chapters of Pirkei Avos by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, that you can print off the internet and study with your own friends and family on the long Shabbos afternoons of summer – see it at: http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/]. Just to whet your appetite a little, allow me to share with you one Mishnah (teaching) and commentary in this week’s chapter, which, in a sense, provides an overview of all that Pirkei Avos has to teach us: “He [Shimon the Righteous] used to say: The world stands on three things – on the Torah, on the service [of G-d], and upon acts of loving-kindness.” (Avos 1:2).

This Mishnah talks to the three essential relationships that G-d wants us to develop and intensify throughout our lives – and which are explored in depth throughout Pirkei Avos: (1) Our relationship with ourselves, as represented by Torah study. The Torah’s teachings help man understand himself and his character traits, thus enabling him to perfect his character, control his urges, refine his aspirations, and become more sensitive and G-dlike; (2) Our relationship with G-d, as represented by prayer and the service of G-d, through which we acknowledge G-d’s rightful role in our lives as our loving Father in Heaven; (3) Our relationship with others, as represented by acts of loving-kindness. This encompasses all of man’s interpersonal relationships.

By stating that “the world stands” on these three things, the Sages are teaching us a powerful lesson. Just as a table cannot stand if even one of its three legs is broken, so, too, does the world need all three of these relationships in order for humanity (and morality) to survive and thrive:
~ Without Torah and the development of man’s relationship to himself, all the good intentions and sincerity in the world to connect to G-d and to others will not do him much good, because he has no Torah to guide him and to help him control his selfish urges and the negative character traits which stand in his way.

~ Without Prayer and the development of man’s relationship to G-d, all acts of loving-kindness and all attempts at self-growth are rendered virtually meaningless. If there is no ultimate meaning to life and there is no objective, Divinely-given morality, then kindness to others and “working on yourself’ have no real meaning. To illustrate this point, Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski tells the following amusing anecdote: Two vagrants were arrested for loitering and hauled before a judge. The judge asked the first vagrant, "What were you doing when the officer arrested you?" "Nothing," the vagrant answered. The judge then turned to the second vagrant, "And what were you doing when you were arrested?" The man pointed toward his buddy. "I was helping him," he said. It is obvious that if one is helping someone who is doing nothing, one is doing nothing oneself.

~ Without Acts of Loving-kindness and the development of man’s relationship to others, we become selfish beings who care only for our own spiritual and material welfare, and the world really falls apart.

[I once heard from Rabbi Berel Gershenfeld shlit”a of Yeshivas Machon Shlomo in Jerusalem the following original idea: Over the centuries and millennia, our relationships in these three critical areas have become stale and mechanical, as often happens when you are with someone for a very long time – be it G-d, your friend, or even yourself. So in order to rejuvenate and re-energize the Jewish people in the period just before the Final Redemption – when our spiritual level has gone down greatly but we can yet hear the Ikvisa D’Meshicha, the “footsteps of the Messiah” – G-d “sent” us three contemporary movements in the 1800’s which served to help restore these broken relationships and pump new energy into them: The Mussar (Jewish Ethics) movement, founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter in Lithuania around the year 1850, brought about positive change in man’s relationship to himself by focusing on the study of the ethical teachings of the Torah. The Chassidic (lit. saintliness) movement, founded by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov in the Ukraine in 1740 (and which spread across much of Eastern Europe in the 1800’s), helped even the simple and unlearned Jew achieve a close relationship to G-d through prayer and mysticism. And the Jewish community of Frankfurt, Germany, headed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), developed to a very high level the relationship between man and his fellow man, by building a community infrastructure of chessed and social responsibility so solid, that it continues to function till today – transplanted after WWII onto American soil – as the “Breuer’s” community in Washington Heights, New York City.]

This is but one of the many thought-provoking and life-impacting teachings one can find in Pirkei Avos – a virtual treasure-trove of brilliant wisdom and inspiration from our Sages that can help us grow in all our most important relationships. Enjoy!

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