The recent war in Israel and Gaza brought me back to the stoic wisdom of Voltaire’s Candide: “one needs to cultivate one’s own garden.” Only with a Jewish twist: according to the Pirkei Avot, no garden is an island.
« If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? »
These elliptic words of wisdom seem to come right out of a Zen or Daoist book.
Yet they are to be found from the mouth of Hillel the sage, in a Talmudic tractate called Pirkei avot –literally “the chapters of the fathers” but often translated as the “Ethics of the fathers”.
With a remarkable economy of words, the verse goes straight to the point in explaining the basis of a healthy relationship to oneself and others:
The pragmatic necessity of self-care, and the ethical imperative of selflessness.
The current success of life coaching programs, Eastern wisdom literature, alternative therapies and Self-Help books evidence how much today in Western cultures, people are thirsty for concrete tools to help them live better.
Indeed, the dream that consumer society was going to bring happiness through material abundance was short lived.
Twenty-first century humans are understanding that happiness, as Jewish Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein put it, is “an inside job”: happiness is not something we receive, but something we create.
This is one of the main tasks of spiritual practice: weaving together contemplation and mindful action, spirituality could be defined as the self-discipline of refining our relationship to ourselves and the world to foster happiness, within and without.
At the opening of the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, Yehuda Ha Nassi, says it beautifully:
« Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious forwho does it, and harmonious for mankind »
Without any apparent logical outline, with disparate topics echoing each other and recurrent themes interweaved and interspersed throughout its six chapters, the “Ethics of the Fathers” is one of these texts that can feel like a refreshing as a glass of water on a hot summer day.
The authors go straight to the point, and the instructions, in their bare simplicity, bring us back to what is essential: Why are self-examination and humility so important? Who should we surround ourselves with, and what to avoid? Why is kindness so fundamental? What values should we strive to embody each day?
I cannot enumerate the number of quotes from the Avot that blow my mind every time I read them. What I know is that in order to embody their teachings in everyday life, they should be contemplated over and over again.
Indeed, far from removing us from the world, meditation is the necessary silence that precedes skilful action. This may be why Rabbi Simon Ben Gamliel declares:
« All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence»
Why would silence be better than words of wisdom? While Jewish texts can be sometimes cryptic, here, Rabbi Shimon provides us with an answer:
« The essential thing is not study, but deed. »
While we see ourselves as the tradition of study-and we certainly are, one of our prominent Sages reminds us that all the study in the world cannot replace mindful action.
In the light of the recent war in Israel and its aftermath, it feels healing to me to turn, again, to our wisdom texts- and to read in it their invitation for silence, for harmony, and for mindfulness.
When I was a teenager reading “Candide” by French Enlightenment Philosopher Voltaire, I was struck by its moral conclusion: the world being crazy, the best thing left to do is to “cultivate one’s own garden.”
Yet as the Pirkei Avot remind us over and over, we cannot cultivate our own garden without also caring for our fellow’s.
When there is a war, children die on both sides.
Whether we want it or not, my garden and your garden are entangled.
The spiritual path is, indeed, to cultivate, as Yehuda HaNassi put it, what is harmonious for us and what is harmonious for mankind.
Not because we are virtuous. Because we are inextricably connected.
And as Hillel, in the last part of the verse quoted at the opening of this article, reminds us:
« If not now, when?”
The author teaches Torah and jewish meditation with the Romemu Yeshiva and Or Ha Lev and will be leading an online course on the Pirkei Avot with Applied Jewish Spirituality, starting June 16th, 2021.
 Pirkei Avot 1.14.
 Sylvia Boorstein, Happiness is an inside job: practicing for a joyful life, New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.
 Pirkei Avot 1.17
 This is a play on words with Heschel’s No religion is an island. New York : Union Theological Seminary, 1966.