Avot Highlights: Chapter One

The custom to study Avot between Pesach and Shavuot is ancient.  I return to Avot yearly as part of the custom, but also because I find it repeatedly rewarding, with the different parts of the tractate that jump out at me each year offering a sort of checkup on where I am this time through. It is also true that Baba Kamma 30a lists three approaches for one who wants to become a Hasid, who wants to achieve the highest forms of religiosity. To me, the easiest and most direct one is to fulfill milei de-Avot, the dictates of Avot.

So let’s look at a few of the points that come up in the first chapter.

The Chain of Tradition

The opening of the tractate “Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua, etc.” is dangerously well-known, in the sense that our familiarity with it can fool us into thinking it has nothing left to teach us.  Just because something has become trite doesn’t mean it’s been internalized.

In this case, people often remember that the Mishnah means that Moshe entrusted Yehoshua (and so on) with the Oral Law, the traditions of meaning and interpretation that accompanied the Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.  But they don’t notice what that implies about the Jewish worldview.

A Core Torah

The Oral law provided specific interpretations, but also a framework into which all other ideas have to fit.  Chazal only offered their interpretations and/or innovations after they had mastered the existing Law, and knew that what they offered was fully consonant with it.

Sadly, today people not only disagree about what the religion should look like, many deny that there is such a defined range of what fits the religion’s worldvieew. They know enough not to deny the Oral Torah, but they don’t recognize that it says a lot more about the goals and limits of Judaism than they might want to admit.

Serving for a Prize and Fear of Heaven

The third Mishnah records the words of Antignos of Socho, that we should not serve Hashem for the sake of reward.  It strikes me this time around that Antignos reminds us that we can’t observe the mitzvot solely for the positive value we reap from them, however we define that. In that context, it doesn’t seem coincidental that the other message he sends is that we should have fear of Heaven (“and let the fear of Heaven be upon you”).  Among other things, Antignos is telling us that we keep mitzvot because Hashem said so; good will come of it, but that can’t be all of why we do it.

I am struck by that this year in particular, I think, because so many people I meet seem to have lost sight of that. One of the ways Lubavitch has been so successful is exactly that: they are unfailingly nice and welcoming, never pointing out the stricter or harsher side of Judaism. I recently read Yechiel Harari’s biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z”l, who pointed out that the Rebbe himself, speaking with his own Hasidim, would stress that he was not one to offer remonstration, reprimand, or rebuke. I have met educators who fear that any attempts to make students aware of the awe or fear side of Judaism will be too off-putting.  I believe Antignos is telling us that’s a fundamental error. We must serve Hashem because Hashem demands it, and let the reward come as it may.

Surrounding Ourselves with Rabbis

We only have space for one more topic, and the issue of rabbinic leadership arises enough times in this chapter that it seems worth taking up.  In the fourth Mishnah, Yose b. Yoezer tells us to make our homes a meeting place for sages, to roll in the dust of their legs, and to drink their words thirstily.

That may be true for our greatest Torah scholars, although even there, I suspect many of them had a few disciples who took all their words seriously and to heart, and a much larger public that chose which of their words they found worth their attention.

And those were our very greatest leaders.  Yose b. Yoezer was saying we each of us need to be surrounded by Torah scholars, even if they’re not of that level, because we need to learn from them, taking whatever they want to give us.  I think it’s an attitude towards Torah and the scholars who transmit it that is lacking in our times (if it ever existed).

Finding a Decisor

That is even truer of a phrase that appears twice in the chapter, עשה לך רב, make for yourself a rabbi (or a master, if we’re going to be literal).  In Mishnah 6, Yehoshua b. Perachyah says it, and then in Mishnah 16, Rabban Gamliel says it. Assuming he’s not being repetitive, it would seem like they’re addressing different aspects of having a rabbi.

Rabban Gamliel seems to be speaking of the rabbi as legal consultant, who helps us avoid doubt.  His role seems to be to offer certainty where we could not find it on our own.

Finding a Religious Guide

Back in Mishnah 6, Yehoshua b. Perachyah links finding a rabbi with having a friend, which implies a concern with the general context of one’s life. We need not go to the extremes of some in terms of da’as Torah to recognize that Torah scholars often have insight into how the Torah views issues that we would not have seen on our own.

Without having a continuing relationship with such a scholar, we will have no way to even realize what it is that we’re missing as we make important life choices.  To that end, Yehoshua b. Perachyah says, have a rabbi.

Which leads me to this closing question: If we know all this, that we have an Oral Law that gives the framework for the Torah, that the rabbis made fences to guarantee our observance, that the Law has positive/rewarding/attractive elements and awe-inspiring/ fear-inducing/ punitive ones, that it is Torah scholars who are likeliest to have the best insight into many of these issues, how much do we make it our business to cultivate such people, to learn from them, to be enriched by their insight into how we might structure our lives more in line with what Hashem hopes and longs (pardon the anthropomorphic language) for from us?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.