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In keeping with the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, for the 6 weeks of the Omer we will God willing be sharing a mini-essay on Pirkei Avot. I encourage you to read, think about the ideas we've shared, and use these thoughts to spur and enrich your Shabbat table discussions.

Pirkei Avot Mini-Essay #1

"That's Just the Way I am"
Being Nice when you’re Not a Nice Person - Shammai, and the Commitment to Kindness

שמאי אומר, עשה תורתך קבע. אמור מעט ועשה הרבה. והוי מקבל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות:
"Shammai used to say: make your [study of the] Torah a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance." (Pirkei Avot 1:15)

In this important teaching, the great sage Shammai, he of the “House of Shammai” and the famous interlocutor of Hillel, provides three indispensable lessons. Our Torah study should be primary, fixed and constant (See  last year's mini-essay for discussion of the word קבע, and how our approaches should perhaps differ with respect to prayer and study); Don’t talk too much - let your actions do the talking; And receive everyone with a pleasant demeanor, with a smile.

Each of these lessons deserves an essay unto itself, but I’d like to focus our thoughts here on the last one - not because of its importance relative to the others, but because of the relationship between the teaching and its teacher.

As it happens, I sit down to write these thoughts late at night, thinking about the moving and poignant Yom Hashoah memorial event we experienced a few short hours ago. One of the great benefits of events like this is, in addition to learning so much about life before and during the war, it helps us make Six Million a bit smaller and less elusive. It reminds us, these were actual people, with actual lives and actual stories, and not just pages for the history books.

But if encountering survivors of the Shoah helps us humanize the tragedy by putting actual people to what otherwise would be merely an idea, we are unfortunately often not afforded that luxury when it comes to Torah study. The Jewish books we read, ther classical texts we study and the Torah ideas we probe, are almost all authored by people. But who were these people? What kind of lives did they lead? What was their personality like? What did their voice sound like? What were their special qualities, and how did those qualities impact their intellectual and spiritual lives? We are rarely privy to this kind of information, to the personality traits and make up of our sages - but when we are, if often enriches our understanding of the Torah we learn from them.

Two sages about whom we are given such a glimpse are the great Hillel and Shammai of our text. Though perhaps more famous for the “houses” they led, Hillel and Shammai were two sages with markedly different personalities, differences which were born out by their behavior and approach.

לעולם יהא אדם ענוותן כהלל, ואל יהא קפדן כשמאי. (שבת ל:-לא.)
A person should always be patient/pleasant like Hillel, and not be impatient/exacting like Shammai. (Shabbat 30b-31a)

As a reflection of their respective personalities, Hillel the patient one and Shammai with the short fuse, later in the passage the Talmud tells the famous story of the man who asked to convert while standing on one foot. Shammai had absolutely no patience or tolerance for such an absurd request, and banished this fool from the study hall. Hillel, however, displayed his trademark forbearance. He took him in, and answered the question cleverly and assuringly.  

And so, if Shammai was a man with little patience and forbearance, if he had a short temper and was prone to a dust up from time to time, it’s fascinating to note that Shammai, and NOT Hillel, is the author of the statement in our mishnah, “greet everyone with a smile!!” If in fact we should read Pirkei Avot with the presumption that these statements offered by these sages were the things these rabbis would go around saying all the time, the things they would scream from the mountaintops, the teachings that they stood for above all others (See Rambam, Avot 4:19), could it really be that it was Shammai who was the one going around preaching this!? Wouldn’t the kind and patient Hillel be the one telling everyone to be nice all the time?

After connecting these two texts and asking this question years ago, I subsequently saw that the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, asked it as well! In his commentary to Avot he suggests that the prospective convert who approached Shammai was asking such an outrageous question, that he removed himself from the category of “adam,” “person,” of our mishnah, and was therefore no longer deserving of Shammai’s pleasant countenance. In other words, Shammai was really a nice guy like Hillel who received everyone pleasantly, and we should understand the passage in Shabbat in light of the one in Pirkei Avot.

It occurred to me, however, to say the precise opposite. Perhaps Shammai was indeed a kapdan, an impatient person. While this may seem like a slight, it is most certainly not. Shammai was a hero…

In truth, Hillel didn’t need to stand for such a teaching. He was naturally nice. It wasn’t a “Torah” for him, it was just who he was. Shammai, on the other hand, needed to work at it - but he knew with every fiber of his being that he was no less obligated to be nice. Shammai teaches us that positive qualities that don’t come easy to us are still our responsibility to cultivate and grow. Though it may be difficult, with diligence and hard work, we can do it. “That’s just the way I am,” should not be a part of our lexicon; It certainly wasn’t a part of Shammai’s. To paraphrase a later teaching in Pirkei Avot, we may not finish the job, but we are not free to resolve ourselves to a status quo of mediocrity.

I recall the first time I offered this interpretation of this mishnah, on the difference between Hillel and Shammai, one being a naturally nice person and the other one who had to work at it. It was at my brother’s aufruf, 20 years ago, in a shiur I delivered between mincha and maariv in my Roslyn community. I noted then that my older brother is one of the most naturally kind and affable people I know. Me? I'm more of a Shammai. I’m a nice guy, but I have to work a little harder at it...

This rare insight into a Talmudic sage and how he worked diligently to improve on his weaknesses should be an inspiration to us all. We all have our shortcomings, yet we are not free to neglect them and say, “That’s just the way I am.” In this period of the omer, as we build and grow towards being worthy of receiving the Torah, let’s identify our weaknesses, and try to improve them. After all, isn't this what studying Pirkei Avot is all about? 

Oh and, if you’re a bit sour sometimes? Smile!

Pirkei Avot Mini-Essay #2

"Do your Job - Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai the Survivor"

Last week, we caught a glimpse into the personality of Shammai, who despite his natural proclivity towards stubbornness and exactitude, constantyl reminded himself the importance of being kind and considerate, of greeting everyone with a smile and a pleasant attitude.

Chapter 2 Mishnah 8 of Pirkei Avot introduces us to another personality whose greatness and teachings are enhanced by an appreciation of who he was and what he stood for: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.
רבן יוחנן בן זכאי קבל מהלל ומשמאי הוא היה אומר אם למדת תורה הרבה אל תחזיק טובה לעצמך כי לכך נוצרת חמשה תלמידים היו לרבן יוחנן בן זכאי ואלו הן רבי אליעזר בן הורקנוס ורבי יהושע בן חנניה ורבי יוסי הכהן ורבי שמעון בן נתנאל ורבי אלעזר בן ערך הוא היה מונה שבחן רבי אליעזר בן הורקנוס בור סיד שאינו מאבד טפה רבי יהושע אשרי יולדתו רבי יוסי חסיד רבי שמעון בן נתנאל ירא חטא ורבי אלעזר בן ערך מעין המתגבר
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai received [the oral tradition] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say: if you have learned much Torah, do not claim credit for yourself, because for such a purpose were you created. 
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples. They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, Rabbi Yose, the priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. He [Rabbi Yochanan] used to list their outstanding virtues: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a plastered cistern which does not lose even a drop; Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, fortunate is the woman that gave birth to him; Rabbi Yose the priest, is a pious man; Rabbi Simeon ben Netanel is one that fears sin, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is like a spring that continues to gather force. 

First, we note that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was the receiver of the tradition from Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai, these two interlocuters and intellectual adversaries, passed the tradition on the same person! Indeed, in the chapter and a half of Pirkei Avot which precedes our text, much of which details pairs of scholars passing the tradition on to another pair, this is the first time that a “zug,” a pair of scholars who were the bearers of the tradition, pass it along to the same individual - and to boot, it was Hillel and Shammai, who appeared to have markedly different versions of the tradition.

In addition, what do we know about Rabban Yochanan besides this text? The Talmud (Gittin 56a-b) tells of Rabban Yochanan’s special relationship with the Roman Emporor Vespesian, who he precidcted would become emporor whjen he was merely a general. When Vespesian rose to become emporor, as he was ready to destroy the Temple and Jeruslaem, he granted Rabban Yochanan a wish in return. HIs request?  ״תן לי יבנה וחכמיה״ - “spare for me the city of Yavneh and its scholars.” It is only due to Rabban Yochanan’s request that, in the aftermath of the destruction of Jeruslalem, Torah life survived...

Rabban Yochanan was the consummate survivor. As the bearer of Hillel and Shammai’s divergent traditions, and the one responsible for saving Torah in post-Temple times, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. It is precisely in this context that we should view Rabban Yochanan’s teachings here.

If you’ve studied much Torah, do not overly congratulate yourself. You are merely fulfilling the task for which you have been placed on this earth. But what’s wrong with being proud and happy about doing what you’ve been asked? Our tradition is replete with moments where we take pride and joy upon fulfilling our obligations!? Why did Rabban Yochanan so insistent on not giving yourself a well-deserved pat on the back?  And why does he seem to betray his own advice, by singing the praises of his students, mentioning the strengths of each of them?

Here too, like Shammai before him who passed on to him the glorious tradition, perhaps Rabban Yochanan was heroically working against his natural inclination. After singlehandedly saving the Torah world, one would expect Rabban Yochanan to rest a bit on his laurels, to be proud and satisfied at all he had managed to accomplish. But he reiterates, כי לכך נוצרת, this is what you have been put here to do. He empowers eacxh of his students, as any good teacher does, by accentuating their special gifts, imploring them to put those qualities to good use in furthering their growth in Torah and building a better world.

And above all, while at first glance there doesn’t appear to be much glory in “doing your job” - no one is throwing you party for coming to work every day - perhaps Rabban Yochanan asks us to think of it another way: “I was born to do this job.” There is great joy and beauty in doing what we know we’re meant to do. It is, in many ways, the height of blessing. 

In mentioning his students one by one, Rabban Yochanan the Survivor asks each of us to not just survive, but to thrive; To find what our strengths are, and use them to the best of our ability in study and in deed. It is, after all, this for which we have been created.

Pirkei Avot Mini-Essays #3

What Books are on your Shelf?

The old saying goes, if you want to know about a person, see what books are on his shelf...

For a brief moment, let’s extend that saying to our dining room tables - if you want to know about a person, see what gets put on the table during meal time…

For many of us, the table on which we eat is a veritable sanctuary. The delicious food we serve, prepared with love and care; the hungry mouths we feed, be they family or friends, neighbors or guests; the stimulating conversations we have, sharing laughs and smiles, concerns or fears, or just shooting the breeze - all of it together becomes something lots of people take great pride in. Our tables are, for many of us, a source of pride and satisfaction.

In addition to food, guests and laughs, Pirkei Avot teaches about another important and indispensable ingredient for a meaningful table: divrei Torah.

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁלשָׁה שֶׁאָכְלוּ עַל שֻׁלְחָן אֶחָד וְלֹא אָמְרוּ עָלָיו דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, כְּאִלּוּ אָכְלוּ מִזִּבְחֵי מֵתִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה כח) כִּי כָּל שֻׁלְחָנוֹת מָלְאוּ קִיא צֹאָה בְּלִי מָקוֹם. אֲבָל שְׁלשָׁה שֶׁאָכְלוּ עַל שֻׁלְחָן אֶחָד וְאָמְרוּ עָלָיו דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, כְּאִלּוּ אָכְלוּ מִשֻּׁלְחָנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (יחזקאל מא) וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלַי זֶה הַשֻּׁלְחָן אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי ה':

Rabbi Shimon said: if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten sacrifices [offered] to the dead (idolatry), as it is said, “for all tables are full of filthy vomit, when the All-Present is absent” (Isaiah 28:8). But, if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present, blessed be He, as it is said, “And He said unto me, ‘this is the table before the Lord’” (Ezekiel 41:22).

In this teaching, Rabbi Shimon underscores the importance of sharing Torah at our tables. Interestingly however, the focus of this teaching is not the Torah, it is the table. In other words, rather than emphasize the primacy of Torah, the timelessness of its ideas and its redemptive value, the focus is on the food we eat. Simply put, we are told not that sharing Torah at a meal is important, but that eating a meal without Torah is like eating pagan sacrifices, while eating a meal with Torah is like eating from God’s table. 

Apparently, then, this mishnah is not about the importance of Torah learning. It is about Torah’s capacity to transform other activities, in particular mealtime. Sure, Torah study is always meaningful and important, but here Rabbi Shimon is teaching us something else entirely: a meal with Torah is a different meal.

A number of other elements of the mishnah underscore this theme. First, the strange phrase, “and did (not) say over it (עליו) words of Torah.” What does it mean to share words of Torah “over the table?” Evidently, while sharing Torah at a meal is lovely, if the Torah is divorced from the table, if we don’t tap into the redemptive capacity of the Torah and its ability to transform the very table on which I eat, then the table becomes one of idol worship. The Torah and the table are to, in a way, become one and the same... 

Furthermore, what constitutes Torah for these purposes? Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, the great 15th-16th century Italian commentary on the Mishnah, suggests:

ובברכת המזון שמברכים על השלחן, יוצאין ידי חובתן, וחשוב כאילו אמרו עליו דברי תורה. כך שמעתי:

I heard that the mere recitation of Birkat Hamazon satisfies the requirement for “Torah,” and it is considered as if you’ve “said divrei Torah over the table.” 

The recitation of Birkat Hamazon as sufficient to render the table as having “Torah said over it” is astounding, to say the least. Birkat Hamazon is a halachic requirement, one that, at least in some instances, need not be shared as a group at all. After all, the case of the mishnah discusses two people, when the minimum for a zimmun, group recitation of bentching, is a group of at least three! Apparently, the role of the Torah is not the Torah itself, but in its capacity to imbue the meal with a certain higher spiritual quality. Pausing before rising from the table and thanking Hashem for the food you’ve eaten does, in essence, accomplish this goal beautifully. (Though of course, Rav Ovadia MiBartenura would agree that additional divrei Torah are encouraged!)

In the spirit of food for thought, also consider the mishnah’s prooftexts - always so important in Pirkei Avot! - and what they say about the mishnah’s teaching.

The broader message of this mishnah is inescapable. We sometimes wonder about the benefits of Torah study. What does it really do for me? What if I can’t find topics that interest me? Those are important questions, but of equal importance is not the value of the Torah itself, but its “books on a bookshelf” capacity, its ability to transform everything else. There is no comparison, really, between a home with Torah books on the shelf and one with just textbooks, encyclopedias, novels and family photos. Walk into a living room or den with chumashim, gemarot, and other books of Jewish’s a different room. A meal with Torah is a different meal, a home with Torah is a different home, and a day with Torah is a different day. Let’s all try and find the time - to do so means to eat from the “Table of God.”

Pirkei Avot Mini-Essay #4
“It is out of our Hands” - Pain and Tears in the Aftermath of the Meron Tragedy

We sit this erev Shabbat in utter shock, as the news trickles in and the body count rises in the greatest loss of life in a civilian tragedy in the history of the State of Israel. A day of festivities and celebration has turned to a day of mourning and crying. We pray for the injured that they be healed, and for the families of the fallen that they find peace.

The 4th chapter of Pirkei Avot (mishnah 15) provides a message whose applicability in our moment is haunting and poignant, telling us that, in a sense, there is no peace to be found. 

רבי ינאי אומר אין בידינו לא משלות הרשעים ואף לא מיסורי הצדיקים
Rabbi Yannai said: it is not in our hands either of the security of the wicked, or even of the afflictions of the righteous.

Simply understood, the Mishnah is referring to the problem of Theodicy. “Ein B’yadeinu,” it is out of our hands, we don’t have the capacity to understand the conundrum of why good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. 

Yet in his second interpretation, Rabbi Ovadia MiBartenura (see last week’s essay) turns this mishnah from a theological statement to an experiential, human one. “Ein B’yadeinu” means not the figurative, “we don’t have the capacity to understand,” but the literal “we do not have.” 

We are, says Rabbi Ovadiah, living through an excruciating limbo. We are not the righteous people confident that their affliction is one of purpose and love (yissurin shel ahava), given by God in this world to guarantee a share in the world to come, and we are also not on the level of the wicked who, at the very least, enjoy tranquility in the here and now. We are neither, hanging in abeyance. In a word, we are lost…

According to the legend in the Talmud, Lag Baomer is supposed to be the day when all the death stopped. Rabbi Akiva’s thousands of students perished for weeks on end, and finally, the plague ceased. And for us, just as we celebrate the end of the plague, as we not only mark the conclusion of the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s students but begin to emerge from months of isolation and a plague of our own, dozens more perish. Indeed, we feel lost…

So what to do? The Mishnah continues, 
רַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַקְדִּים בִּשְׁלוֹם כָּל אָדָם. וֶהֱוֵי זָנָב לָאֲרָיוֹת, וְאַל תְּהִי רֹאשׁ לַשּׁוּעָלִים:
“Rabbi Matyah ben Charash says, upon meeting people, be the first to extend greetings; And be a tail unto lions, and not a head unto foxes.”

Perhaps I am self-reflecting more than anything else, but the urge to avoid being a leader (a “head unto foxes”) and a preference for being a follower is entirely legitimate in such a state of aimlessness. When you feel lost, the best response is to surround yourself with a community of people who can support you and elevate you, even when your instinct would have you normally lead. The burden of leadership in such a moment can almost be too much to bear. In such a moment, take the initiative and reach out to others - be מקדים שלום לכל אדם - and do not feel guilty for needing support.

Ein B’yadeinu. We just can’t. May all of us support one another amid the loss and be the lions of strength that each of us tails need, lions that are the very stuff of community. And, to paraphrase Rabbi Matyah, הוי מקדים שלום, may peace precede and prevail above all else.

Pirkei Avot Mini-Essays #5
On Yom Yerushalayim: Social Distancing and Social Connection in the Temple

For all of us, the Temple in Jerusalem is merely a dream - a dream of what once was, and a hope of what again will hopefully soon be. But in so many ways, learning and thinking about life in the Beit Hamikdash can serve as a model and inspiration for today, especially after the year we’ve just gone through.

The 4th mishnah in the 5th chapter of Pirkei Avot, a mishnah those of us who study the daf yomi coincidentally has an opportunity to discuss at length this week, details the 10 miracles that took place in the Beit Hamikdash:

עשרה נסים נעשו לאבותינו בבית המקדש: לא הפילה אשה מריח בשר הקדש ולא הסריח בשר הקדש מעולם ולא נראה זבוב בבית המטבחים ולא אירע קרי לכהן גדול ביום הכפורים ולא כבו גשמים אש של עצי המערכה ולא נצחה הרוח את עמוד העשן ולא נמצא פסול בעומר ובשתי הלחם ובלחם הפנים עומדים צפופים ומשתחוים רווחים ולא הזיק נחש ועקרב בירושלים מעולם ולא אמר אדם לחברו צר לי המקום שאלין בירושלים
Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in the Temple: [1] no woman miscarried from the odor of the sacred flesh; [2] the sacred flesh never became putrid; [3] no fly was ever seen in the slaughterhouse; [4] no emission occurred to the high priest on the Day of Atonement; [5] the rains did not extinguish the fire of the woodpile; [6] the wind did not prevail against the column of smoke; [7] no defect was found in the omer, or in the two loaves, or in the showbread; [8] the people stood pressed together, and bowed down with ample space; [9] never did a serpent or a scorpion harm anyone in Jerusalem; [10] and no man said to his fellow: “this place is too congested for me to lodge overnight in Jerusalem.”

This varied and detailed list, despite being titled miracles that took place “in the Temple,” begins with miracles inside the actual Temple regarding the actual service and sacrifices themselves, but ends with a miracle in the city of Jerusalem. When the people of Israel came for their pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year, no one said to their friend, “it’s too crowded for me here!” Strictly speaking, this wonder (as well as the one before it about snakes and scorpions in Jerusalem) is not a miracle in the Temple and doesn’t belong on this list. As we prepare to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim this week, the list’s conclusion with the Jerusalem miracles as an extension of “miracles in the Temple” underscores the mutually enhancing relationship between the two: On the one hand the sanctity and significance of the city of Jerusalem is why the Temple was built there, and at the same time, Jerusalem draws its holiness from the Temple which stands/stood at its center. We celebrate Jerusalem for what it is today, but for also all that it was long ago and all that it will yet again become.

Moreover, it is interesting to note the connection between two miracles that refer to crowd control and physical distance between people. In number 8 we read, עומדים צפופים ומשתחוים רווחים - people stood packed in, but when they bowed there was enough space for everyone to do so! And at the end of the list, “no one said to their friend, it’s too crowded for me to stay over here in Jerusalem!” 

A number of commentaries point out, the list’s last miracle is not phrased in the same way the previous nine were, stating a physical reality. The mishnah does not say that “there was enough space for everyone to sleep.” Because, in reality, says the Chatam Sofer, there really wasn’t! It really WAS too crowded! The miracle was, even though there was really no room for everyone, no one SAID so. No one cared. Because the unity and togetherness of aliyah laregel made those concerns secondary.

Being in Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular has a tendency to put things in perspective. When we are there, our problems don’t disappear, but they just seem slightly less, well, problematic. As we too emerge from being distant form one another for an extended period of time and begin to come together in more meaningful and robust ways, the challenges we face do not disappear. But coming together and the feelings of unity and togetherness that that has the capacity to generate helps us put things in perspective. On this special Yom Yerushalayim, as we celebrate the city of unity with greater unity amongst ourselves, let’s appreciate that this is the greatest miracle of all.


Sat, September 24 2022 28 Elul 5782