The secular Jewish world is obsessed with the notion of tikkun olam, making the world a better place. In theory, it is grandiose, glorious and part of our mission, but in their hands, it generally has little practical application.
Torah Jews pledge allegiance to our mission statement and national raison d’etre. Three times a day, we proclaim our intention “lesakein olam b’malchus Shakai,” to rectify and purify the world with Hashem’s dominion. We endeavor to bring His light and presence into this olam, a place of “he’alam,” concealment and darkness.
The words of a wise man are often repeated: When I was a young man, I was determined to change the world. As I grew older and more realistic, I thought that I could change my town. Now, as an old man with a white beard, I am desperately attempting to change myself.
That’s our approach to tikkun olam.
Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach once told Reb Shlomo Lorencz that he’d never known a genuine talmid chochom who wasn’t in control of his middos. In fact, Rav Shach said, the greater a talmid chochom a person is, the more he has worked on his middos.
Now, during the days of Sefirah, as we stake out a path to kabbolas haTorah, we must work to refine our character. Rav Chaim Vital teaches in Shaarei Kedushah that the reason the mandate to work on middos doesn’t appear in the Torah is because the Torah was given to a nation of refined character. Hence the assumption that one who is approaching the Torah is already a baal middos.
Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in Ruach Chaim, his peirush on Pirkei Avos, explains the Mishnah (2:10) that quotes Rabi Eliezer, who said, “Yehi kevod chavercha choviv alecha kesheloch.” Simply translated, this means that your friend’s honor should be as precious to you as your own.
Rav Chaim explains the Mishnah with a twist: When you respect your friend with even a drop of honor, to you it feels as if you heaped upon him much more honor than he deserves, while when your friend honors you, it never seems that he did enough.
Rabi Eliezer thus speaks to us and teaches us that the honorific fashion in which we treat others should be as important to us as the way we want to be treated.
Chazal admonish us not only to focus inward, but also to study the attributes of others and respect them. The talmidim of Rabi Akiva were punished al shelo nohagu kavod zeh bozeh. We rectify this by showing respect for our friends, neighbors and acquaintances.
Keep your eyes open and look around you. Sometimes, witnessing a simple act of mentchlichkeit can restore your faith in humanity. An unexpected kindness, a genuine mazel tov wish or a heartfelt apology has the potential to move us, perhaps because they are too rare.
All too often, we are disappointed. We don’t see the nobility, integrity and strength of character we long to behold in others, as well as in ourselves. Sometimes, we look in shock as people engage in self-destructive behavior and commit actions that are hurtful to others. We wish we could stop them but are unable to.
When people foment machlokes over petty imagined insults, when people fight publicly, we stand by and watch and wish there was something we could do to break it up and end it. All too often, we end up frustrated, as egos and intransigence combine to force people to be myopic and trivial.
There is much imperfection, inside of us and all around. Where, then, is the path to tikkun? Where do we start? If Chazal want us to arrive at Shavuos ready, why don’t they map out the way?
The answer is that they do.
They gave us a potent tool, a little book comprised of but six chapters that illuminates the path, exposes the pitfalls, and offers the path to self-perfection.
It’s filled with good, old-fashioned advice on serving Hashem, confronting ourselves and dealing with other people. If you read this book, you learn how to value yourself, how to respect others and how to interact with them.
It defines true honor, wisdom, wealth, and much more. In addition, it teaches how to acquire these gifts that people spend a lifetime chasing after.
No, it’s not one of those little self-help books written by a wannabe celebrity with a good press agent. It’s not written by a self-anointed paragon of virtue who tomorrow will be splashed all over the paper for gambling away the fortune he made dispensing advice.
When a person isn’t sure how to conduct himself in a given situation, he turns to his parents. A child looks to his father for direction and wisdom to steer him around stumbling blocks and through dangerous minefields. But it’s more than that.
A father knows his child from day one, so he understands him. He knows what motivates each child, what to say and how to say it to each child.
This book contains fatherly wisdom, perception and insight. Hence its name, Pirkei Avos.
Written by the spiritual fathers of our people, it contains the most vital lessons a father could pass on to his children. Its ideas jump off the page right into your heart. You know you are reading the quintessential truth. You know that if you would just take a few extra minutes to digest the astute insights in this book, you’d be so much better off.
Pirkei Avos is not some foreign book that is off limits to our understanding until it is translated. For generations, Jews studied it all through the spring and summer months. They knew that it contains the answers to the most frequently asked questions, as well as the keys to personal happiness.
Unfortunately, for some reason, we, as a community, have relegated the learning of Pirkei Avos to children. In some shuls, it has become something to be davened-up after Minchah on Shabbos afternoon. Others don’t even bother doing that.
That certainly wasn’t the attitude of Rav Yehuda Hanosi, the mesader of the Mishnah. It is a far cry from the perspective he offers in the chain of mesorah that he cites from Moshe Rabbeinu to Yehoshua, then to the Zekeinim, the Nevi’im, and the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, right down to the giants of his own era.
Rabi Yehuda, Rabi Yosi, Rabi Meir, Rabi Shimon – all our sages from Bava Metzia, Kiddushin and Arachin – are here. The greatest fathers and teachers of the generations are guiding us on how to be productive and content, how to live life with a smile on our faces and a sense of serenity in our hearts.
And, printed right alongside those Mishnayos is the Rambam, bringing the words of the Mishnah home in a way that is so real and immediate, you’d think his explanations were written today. Rabbeinu Yonah is here, too, with insights that are remarkably contemporary, joined of course by Rashi and many others, as well.
There are hundreds of other commentaries, and each one has a new angle, adding flavor and subtlety to the endless stream of wisdom of how to live life to its fullest.
They tell us so much, if we would only listen.
They teach us how to respond when a fellow Jew falls on bad times, why communities suffer, why sword comes to the land, why there is exile, and why there is economic depression. These issues are as relevant and pressing today as they were 2,000 years ago. Look for the answers here and they will send a shiver up your spine.
The Avos speak directly to their children. Take their answers to heart.
We must learn to translate their message in the context of our own reality. Our instinct must always be to turn to this masechta, for it is the legacy of our Avos.
Some make the mistake of relating to Pirkei Avos as light and easy material. It isn’t. It is as profound as the human psyche. But despite our depth and complexity, we, too, often get tripped up in the most shallow and simple areas. Without being aware of it, we become upset about trivialities, trample on others’ sensitivities, and are heedless of their vulnerabilities.
My rebbi, Rav Mendel Kaplan zt”l, would say that he knew a lot of children “with long white beards.” These were people who went through life never shedding their immaturities. People who remained children all their lives, never developing seichel, insight or a sense of responsibility.
The effort we must invest in learning these Mishnayos is to go farther than studying their practical meaning. Our task is to inculcate the middos to the point where they become second nature.
When we are no longer afraid to admit a mistake, when we learn how to see into a fellow Jew’s heart, when our own hearts have stretched in size so that they can accommodate more than our own egos, we will know that Pirkei Avos is doing its job on us.
When we begin to rid ourselves of our anger and jealousy, when we have developed a real relationship with Hashem, when we are no longer bothered by nonsense, by havlei havalim, we will know that the lessons of our fathers are penetrating the hearts of the sons.
When we see the refinement and spiritual nobility of talmidei chachomim, we realize from where those middos come. Pirkei Avos and other such works raise men like us to such lofty plateaus.
Rav Reuven Grozovsky suffered a debilitating stroke and his talmidim set up a rotation to assist him throughout the day. The bochur charged with attending to the rosh yeshiva each morning would help him wash negel vasser, then wrap tefillin on his arm and head and hold the siddur.
The rosh yeshiva’s hands would occasionally shake, making the task difficult.
One day, a nervous bochur had the zechus of being meshameish the rosh yeshiva. As Rav Reuven’s hand shook, the anxious boy reacted and poured out the contents of the negel vasser cup, missing the rosh yeshiva’s hand completely. Humiliated, the boy tried again. He was already so frantic, and this time the water ended up on Rav Reuven’s bed and clothing.
He stopped and calmed himself before trying a third time. This time he properly washed Rav Reuven’s hands. He helped Rav Reuven say brachos and then put the rosh yeshiva’s tefillin on for him. He was ready to leave, when Rav Reuven called him over and thanked him, chatting with him for several moments.
Feeling calm and happy, the bochur left.
He later learned that the rosh yeshiva was known to never speak, even one word, while wearing tefillin. This was a first. It was obvious that Rav Reuven had noticed the bochur’s embarrassment and instinctively forfeited his own kabbolah to put the young man at ease.
Rav Reuven was sick. He couldn’t say shiur like he once had, he couldn’t write the penetrating chiddushim of his younger years, but the middos tovos were baked into his essence. They were part of who he was.
A talmid once went to learn with Rav Avrohom Genechovsky, the Tchebiner rosh yeshiva, on a Shabbos afternoon. Engrossed in his thoughts, the young man absentmindedly rang the doorbell. Horrified, he stood there for a long while, wishing he could disappear, before he was able to knock again. Rav Avrohom didn’t answer, which was surprising, since he didn’t sleep on Shabbos afternoon and was usually waiting for his chavrusah.
Eventually, a sleepy-looking Rav Avrohom came to the door – in his pajamas. He apologized for the delay and explained that he had been unusually tired, so he took a rest and did not heard the knocking.
When the the young man figured out what really happened he was overwhelmed. Of course his rosh yeshiva had heard the ringing doorbell and had immediately reacted. Rather than open the door and humiliate the talmid, he quickly put on his pajamas and waited several minutes, pretending that he had not heard anything out of the ordinary.
To a talmid chochom, it is instinctive to act in a way that preserves another person’s dignity.
The personality molded by Torah is soft, flexible and kind. He is also strong and unbending. And it is not a stirah.
In another example that nothing is arbitrary, the parshah that we study during the days of Sefirah, Kedoshim, teaches us how to attain holiness. It’s a parshah laden with mitzvos bein odom lachaveiro. We are taught how to treat workers and borrowers, the blind, the deaf and the poor.
Through absorbing these mitzvos and their lessons, we become worthy of the Torah itself. The maxims that fill Maseches Avos become truisms. They are the only way to live. The baal middos sees the middos in those around him as well, changing the atmosphere.
We have been given the tools, and now is the time to put them to use lesakein olam.
The Sefas Emes was once given a large sum of money for safekeeping by a visiting chossid. The rebbe placed the money in a secure place, but the next morning, it was gone. The rebbe entered the bais medrash and announced that davening would not begin until the money was returned to its rightful owner.
No one came forward. Time passed, but the mystery wasn’t solved. Finally, the rebbe went into his house, called over one of the attendants, and said, “Give back the money you took.”
The attendant broke down and admitted his misdeed.
“If the rebbe knew who had taken the money,” the gabbai asked, “why did we have to wait so long to confront him?”
An elder chossid explained that the rebbe knew who the culprit was; that wasn’t the hard part. The challenge for the rebbe was being able to look another Jew in the face and accuse him of being a thief. It took the rebbe hours to get to that point, after he had exhausted all opportunities for the man to save face.
The rebbe heard the chossid’s explanation and confirmed what he had said.
Hurting another person should be very difficult for us, while being thoughtful, kind and generous should be intuitive.
There are six perokim in Pirkei Avos, one for each week of Sefirah. As we read them and become better rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, we will be prepared to receive His Torah.