The sixth Shabbat after Pesach is on May 12, 2018. We close out our study of Pirke Avot by considering the sixth and final chapter. This chapter is rich in symbolism, extolling the virtues of Torah study. I will be using the Sefaria edition (with community translation) of Pirke Avot from Sefaria.org.
Learning Torah involves multiple levels of understanding: p’shat ( פְּשָׁט), remez (רֶמֶז), d’rash(דְּרַשׁ ), and sod(סוֹד) ;the first letters of these Hebrew words spell out the word “pardes“, meaning “paradise”. P’shat refers to the plain (or surface) meaning of the text. Remez refers to hints or allegories behind the text. D’rash refers to homiletic or midrashic (same root) from a word meaning to “seek”. Sod refers to the deepest, or “secret” meanings behind the text (which can include kabbalistic, gematria, vocalizations, cantillations, even the calligraphic crowns or tagin that appear on certain letters in a Torah scroll. A person should study Torah at his/her appropriate level, but appreciate the fact that so much more is there other than the literal meaning of a text. Notice that the mishnah emphasizes the moral benefits of Torah study as well.
We learned in a previous chapter that the wise person learns from everyone. Here the mishnah emphasizes the importance of learning and teaching. To set someone on a moral path, to give tzedakah, to perform mitzvot, to make someone aware of their connection to Israel and the Jewish community is a great thing to accomplish. As we approach the festival of Shavuot, and commemorate the giving of the Torah (matan Torah), this lesson is important.
There is a saying that is one chases honor, it will flee from him. Humility does not mean to denigrate yourself or not demonstrate your knowledge about something. the point is to correctly impart information during an inter-personal contact and not be obnoxious about it. Achievement and gain are worthwhile goals, but not as obsessions.
We must be careful not to do anything in excess. The mishnah is stressing a level of dedication that may not be appropriate for ourselves in a given time or place. But from this mishnah, we can see many of the same ideas that we have encountered in the previous five chapters. The last part of the mishnah, giving attribution, is important for it continues the chain of teaching and learning. So thank you to Sefaria.org for providing a vast library of publically available Jewish texts!
May we all benefit with length of days and good health, study Torah, and stay commented to Eretz Yisroel and B’nai Yisroel as we not only celebrate the 70th anniversary of independence of the State of Israel, but through the year, and at all of the festivals, on Shabbat, in times of joy, in times of sorrow, in times of song, and in times of silence. Amen.