Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
October 16, 2020
As we enter Shabbat Bereshit, I thought I would try something a little bit different. Over the years (including right now with Jews Next Dor), we have looked at Pirkei Avot in different ways and in different contexts. Tonight I would like to start at the very beginning and discuss small snippets of Pirkei Avot. The wisdom within it is powerful. The lessons are pithy. Sometimes they challenge our modern sensibilities, while other times they seem like they were written for today.
משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים, הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, וְהַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה, וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה:
A number of years ago, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch was Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In a lecture before the students, he shared a teaching about this very first Mishnah. He noted that we read this one routinely and see it as straightforward, and not remotely controversial, yet in its time, it was neither. The Mishnah shares the passing down of Torah, putting the Sanhedrin (and the rabbis) as the inheritors of Torah. Yet in the time of the Mishnah, that was just becoming clear. During the last days of the Temple, the Cohanim, the priests, would surely imagine differently. THEY would see themselves as the inheritors of Torah--not the upstart rabbis. It is only now that those debates seem less pressured, less controversial, with far lower temperatures.
We think of our challenges--our social unrest, our civil rights issues, our inequality, our financial, emotional, health concerns as the pressing issues of this moment. Yet we forget, as Ecclesiastes taught us over Sukkot, that there is “nothing new under the sun”. Many of the same issues have been relevant and challenging not only for generations but for millenia. Caste, race, class, are not new issues. They have been with us for a very, very long time. They were challenged in the Torah and in Rabbinic literature and they remained challenged today. Our tradition tries to push us towards an ideal society, one built on a foundation of truth, justice, equity, and love for ourselves and others. If we think about it, it is quite radical!
After calling the Torah their inheritance, throughout Pirkei Avot, the rabbis give many brief summaries of the essence of Torah. In their first lesson they say three things, which I’ll briefly discuss in reverse order: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.
For us today these ideas are no less relevant. Studying and teaching Torah, we must know where the boundaries are. How do we ensure the safety of our community? How do we ensure the wellbeing of our loved ones? When we put up a baby gate for our children, the placement is essential. While falling down a couple steps usually doesn’t hurt, we don’t put the gate in the middle, we place it at the top or bottom of the steps, to ensure their protection. Why would we do any different for Jewish traditions? Yet as we place those fences, we should ensure that we are not building concrete walls with barbed wire on top. Torah should guide us, not infantilize us!
This first Mishnah teaches us the importance of education. As Jews, education has been practically a dogma. The old joke asks when is a child an adult? When she graduates from medical school! Education is assumed--causing challenges when our children do not conform to our expectations!
Finally, they offered a very relevant lesson for today. Change does not happen overnight. We must work steadily, carefully, continuously for justice. We must be judicious in our judgements. If we find ourselves in a position of power, we must use it with great care and responsibility.
There is a reason that Pirkei Avot has been studied and commented on repeatedly in our tradition. There is so much to it! If you enjoy (or not) this format, let me know, and I’ll consider continuing it in the weeks to come!
My words of Torah can be found at the 22 minute mark: