The Book of Wisdom: Avoth

The Book of Wisdom: Avoth


By Eugen Schoenfeld


Passover has passed, and the winter with it. Spring has arrived and soon we will enjoy the summer. I have always loved this season, especially seeing the first dandelions blossom. Still dusted with snow announcing in its humble way the arrival of spring; the time of rejuvenation of life and love.

This love for spring is not mine alone. In the Song of Songs, in which King Solomon supposedly declares “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in the land and above all he reiterates the beauty of love.”

For the last two years, I have been even happier to experience Pesach, the holiday of spring, because I see the rebirth of Judaism in my family. I know that my great-grandson will participate in the conducting of the Seder. I see the Jewish tradition being handed down mee dor lador, from one generation to another, and thus the golden chain of Judaism continues to expand.

Furthermore, the Shabbat after Passover marks the time when we cease the customary reading of the Shabbat winter afternoon selections from the Book of Psalms and substitute it with the summer reading of the Sayings of Our Fathers, or, as some call it, the Ethics of Our Fathers.

A question must be raised: what is the significance of this small book of six chapters that more scholars commented on than any other book of the Talmud?

Avoth is very short. As stated, it is only a six-chapter booklet which has been attached to one of the six books of the Mishna – the book of Nezikin. Many of the commentators on Avoth raise this question: What does Avoth have to do with Nezikin, the book which contains the laws regarding civil, legal matters? Pirkei Avoth, as it is called in Hebrew, is a unique book. It stands alone and contains a collection of sayings and observations concerning the Jewish views of morals and ethics. Yet, again, this little booklet has inspired more commentary than most of the rest of the Talmud.

In my days in the shtetl, most Jews who spent their time earning a living did not have the time or the leisure to study, always took time on Shabbat to read from Avoth. On the one hand, the great scholar and philosopher Maimonides sees the teachings of Avoth as the book of wisdom that humanizes people. Maimonides proposed that “the moral and ethical teachings of Avos are … especially critical for judges. The courts,” proposes Maimonides, “must be permeated with a sense of ethics and morality.” (Tractate Avoth, Mesorah Publication p.6)

As a young boy, I was constantly reminded of this idea, especially by my grandparents: “Naftuli!” they instructed me “A mensch zoslt du zein” meaning “be a human being,” “be responsible for your actions.” I found that one can gain great understanding of the Jewish world-view by reading the teachings of our sages. As I gained a greater understanding of this ideology I also gained a greater insight into the wisdom which the rabbis of the Talmudic period left us: their teachings on how to become a mensch.

I learned the qualities that makes one a wise man. Not long ago, a friend, a Jew, like so many of us unaware of our own philosophy, asked me a question very similar to the question that Hillel was asked, namely what can he read to gain some insight of the Jewish world-view. Far from being Hillel, I struggled to find an answer. After all, I could simply say that a learned Jew could study all his life and toward the end of his life still claim ignorance. Yet, I did not want to leave him without some recommendation. I said start with reading the Pirkei Avoth .

On the other hand, most non-scholarly Jews read Avoth for extrinsic reasons. The less educated Jews read Avoth because by so doing they believe they will gain celestial credit that will assure their entrance into paradise, i.e. Gan Eiden. Before reading the weekly chapter of Avoth, we recited the following statement: “All Israel has a portion in the world to come: as it is said: All thy people shall be righteous; they shall inherit the land for ever…” By reading Avoth on Shabbat, the hard working Jew, the prost pushekdeke Yid, the non-scholarly Jew, believes that the playing field evens out and the simple Jew now has an equal access to the world to come.

When I am confronted by the sayings of our sages, I seek my own interpretation of their meaning. In the past, the Jewish world-view, as most world-views, was influenced by religious beliefs. However, I have accepted Maimonides’ view that the Torah, and its teachings can be interpreted in many different ways. I seek a more modern peshat, an interpretation that enhances my belief that morals and ethics must have universal components, so that the teachings remain valid for the present, as they were in the past. For instance, one of the more famous of Rabbi Hillel’s teaching in Avoth states: “If I am not for myself – then who is for me? But, if I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now – then when?”

Many early rabbinical interpreters propose that this aphorism is related to the study of Torah. Yad Avrohom, quoting medieval scholars, proposes that what Hillel meant to say is that all people must toil for their reward in the world to come. No one, states Yad Avrohom, transfers the merits of another person unto himself. I, on the on the other hand, propose that Hillel’s wisdom led him to create aphorisms that have universal, if not eternal, relevance. In my view, Rabbi Hillel envisioned this internal conflict long before Freud was aware of the conflict between the Id and the Super Ego. In fact, the Torah, long before Hillel, foresaw the problems associated with the human dilemma between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, between the good and evil inclinations which coexist in human beings.

Quite often we equate the evil inclination with egoism, with selfishness, and the good inclination with empathy and our concern for others. This idea is similar to the exposition in the Hagadah concerning the good and evil sons. However, Hillel sees that the two inclinations exist inherently in those newly born.

What we call egoism, primacy of the self, is inherent while the concern for others must be instilled. Hillel does not deny the primacy of concern with the “I.” However, he does raise the question “but if I am only for myself – then what am I?” It is the evil son whose world view is centered in the “I” alone and doesn’t care for the “we,” for others, for the collective. It is the evil son who does not contribute to the well being of mankind. Indeed if one is for himself and himself alone, than what is he? Yet, he does not deny that first and foremost people must be for themselves, for their own interests, and at the same time asserts that no one should withdraw from his responsibility to act as his brother’s keeper.

This assertion is similar to Maimonides’ teaching that one must dispense charity to his own family and only then to others. In another statement, Rabbi Hillel cautions us to not separate yourself from the community, do not believe in yourself till the day you die, do not judge your fellow until you have been in his place, and do not make statements that cannot be understood, assuming that eventually it will be understood.

Our continuity as a people is strongly associated with our moral and ethical teachings which are rooted in the Jewish experience. We are not only the people of the book – but more specifically we are the people of the book of human morals and ethics. We are the espousers of those teachings which are essential for the development of peace. The best way to start: go and become familiar with your people’s wisdom – read Avoth.

Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a survivor of the Holocaust.

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