It hit me last Shabbos. We began our first annual Pirkei Avos shiur and I realized that we had missed almost an entire season of this important subject last year. Although I give a halacha shiur every Shabbos before Mincha, from Pesach to Rosh Hashanah I have the zechus to add a shiur in the “weekly perek.” Like so many other important things, most of the Pirkei Avos shiurim were lost to Covid-19. Of course, many of us learned the proper perek in private, but a public shiur is an opportunity to share thoughts on mussar, improvements we need to make – both personally and communally – and to discuss contemporary challenges in our lives. The intervention of Covid, of course, raised new issues which are floating to the surface after a difficult period of nisyonos and self-searching. Going forward, I would like to share a few thoughts that emerge from a new perspective on Pirkei Avos and what these Mishnayos can teach us as we struggle to emerge from our viral cocoon.
First of all, we should note that virtually all thinking people are reconsidering many aspects of their lives. Just this past week, the New York Times Sunday Review (April 11, 2021) featured an article entitled “You Can Be a New You After the Pandemic.” The author cites examples of people making changes not only in their lives, but in their very personalities and characters. One is an unfortunate young widow who just lost her husband at the age of 29. She had hitherto been a “cautious and work-oriented person.” However, she is now working to become more like her late husband, whose “zeal for living” caused him to engage in sailing boats and flying airplanes. Her reasoning was that “there has to be more out there. Why am I not doing it?” Far be it from me to tell anyone else how to make changes in their lives, but we should be grateful to have a time devoted to learning Pirkei Avos and a guide to life that features the actual thoughts and lives of our sages of the Mishnah.
Interestingly, this idea is set forth by the last Rashi on Pirkei Avos (quoted in Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter’s edition, page 2). He writes that “these [Mishnayos] are called Pirkei Avos because they represent the foundations of our fathers such as Moshe Rabbeinu, Yehoshua and the Elders… Rebbi (Rav Yehuda Hanosi) taught how their actions were perfected and how they instructed and guided their generations in the correct path. Similarly, it is appropriate for each leader to teach his generation the proper way to live.”
It may be unnecessary, but it is enlightening to note how prescient our sages were in promulgating strategies and practical methods for achieving any desired changes. One of the chiddushim in the Times article is to actually institute and make the change before thinking, researching or fully understanding its purpose or goal. For instance, “in one study, putting more effort into homework led students to become more conscientious – a reversal of the popular notion that conscientious students put more effort into their homework.” Torah Jews may immediately recognize this “innovation” as the oft-quoted teaching of the Sefer Hachinuch (see, for instance, Mitzvah 15), “Ha’adam nifal lefi pe’ulosav – A person becomes the result of his actions.” That was already taught in Jewish wisdom eight centuries ago. We can only imagine what carefully studying the pragmatic life’s lessons of Pirkei Avos from millennia ago can do for us.
Let us therefore begin at the beginning with a question that has always bothered me. Clearly, Pirkei Avos was meant for everyone, yet the opening teachings seem to be addressed only to dayanim, judges, and those who represent various litigants. Surely there could have been more universal teachings with which to begin these Mishnayos. However, in light of our Covid-19 experiences and discussions, we can now see clearly that we are all dayanim, constantly making decisions about the important matters in our lives. Multiple times every day, we are called upon to decide things that may be minor or life-changing, but we don’t always realize that we are doing so. We all know and the above article only corroborates that Covid-19 has reminded us all that “there has to be something more out there.” Our prolonged isolations and quarantines have forced us into introspection and contemplation for which we never had the time or inclination.
An example of how the Torah teaching on a subject is honed and applied freshly in each generation may be seen in the first of these Mishnayos. The Mishnah states that “one should be deliberate (mesunim) in judgment. Rabbeinu Yonah indeed understands this to be an injunction to judges and poskim not to rush into final judgment, but “to very carefully analyze each detail so that they should not err in judgment.” Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (Sichos Mussar 5733, No. 15) extends this to “each of us who must follow the same process, for Rav Yisroel Salanter taught us that every person must judge himself. He must wrestle with himself before performing any action, scrupulously deciding whether or not it is the right thing to do.”
Although these teachings are universal, pertaining to general morals and ethics, the majority of Pirkei Avos is directed at Klal Yisroel, Hashem’s children and nation. One of the earliest and most basic of these mandates relates to the very question of why we serve Hashem: “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward and let the awe of heaven be upon you” (1:3). Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky (commentary, page 30) explains that “in essence, man should accept the yoke of heaven in two ways: First of all, not for reward, meaning out of love. Secondly, he must serve out of fear as well. Both of these motivations are necessary and they must function together. Sometimes a person’s love of G-d may wane and sometimes his fear will weaken… For this reason, Hashem picked up the mountain above Klal Yisroel… Although they had already declared their commitment (naaseh venishma), they required the dual middos of love and awe.”
Rav Kamenetzky is demonstrating to us the fundamental nature of this ancient teaching and one of the first in Pirkei Avos. The Torah demands much of us but recognizes our frailty. Hashem wants us to serve Him out of love but knows that the element of awe and fear – the great fire (Tosafos, Shabbos 88a) and the mountain hanging above us – are necessary as well. This is a particularly important message when so many people are weary, overstrained and just seem to crave some serenity and tranquility. According to Rav Kamenetzky, the message is that we must serve Hashem in the best way we can at any given time. If necessary, it is out of a sense of awe, but hopefully we will also recognize Hashem’s profound benevolence and kindness and the awe will be suffused with love and gratitude as well.
Since this week we will be learning the second perek of Pirkei Avos, we will take some further examples of teachings and especially chizuk from this chapter. The first Mishnah of this week’s perek teaches: “Be as scrupulous in performing a ‘minor’ mitzvah as a ‘major’ one, for you do not know the reward given for the respective mitzvos.” Rav Shlomo Wolbe (Alei Shur 2:189-190) teaches us a tremendous life’s lesson from these words. He reveals that “a person is built by the small things.” He explains that this thought should “create a revolution in a person’s mind.” People think that to accomplish great things, one must join an organization and change a country, city or at least the organization. To change oneself, as well, it is often thought, takes great and dramatic measures. “However,” he concludes, “it is not so. It is the tiny steps that are crucial.” His example is from the world of medicine. Sometimes it is a tiny amount of medication that can cure a person of an illness. As a matter of fact, too much of the medication can injure or kill the patient. It is the same with improvements and personal change.
In this time, when everyone is speaking of various vaccinations, we can apply the metaphor more sharply. It is a small of amount of a new vaccination that mankind is counting on to restore “normalcy” to our lives. Less than the requisite vaccination will accomplish little or nothing. Too much can be destructive. Yet, most people are lining up to be vaccinated in the hope and with the prayer of being protected and saved from the dreaded virus.
In the spiritual world as well, Pirkei Avos is teaching us to take small careful steps. As the baalei mussar teach us, one cannot jump up a ladder. It is the small steps that lead safely to the top. Let us hope that by learning our Pirkei Avos, heeding the wise words of our sages and committing ourselves to be servants of Hashem, we will soon be on the road to a full physical and spiritual recovery.