Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Power of Pirkei Avot

Today, I want to share a particularly poignant thought from the Pirkei Avot Treasury.

As background, Pirkei Avot is a collection of ethical teachings from the rabbis of the Mishnah. Its uniqueness is that it is the only tractate of the Misnah that does not discuss halacha (at least not overtly); it focuses purely upon the ethical obligations of each of us.

Pirkei Avot is translated as Ethics of the Fathers, but literally means Chapter of the Fathers. "Fathers" is a way of saying "foundational categories." For instance, the categories of "work" on Shabbat are called "avot melacha." In the context of Pirkei Avot, translating it as teachings of the Fathers seems especially appropriate when you consider that the rabbis of the Mishnaic period are our spiritual fathers.

And now here is the piece that spoke to me a few weeks ago:

"For a commandment is a lamp and Torah is light, and the way of life is the remonstrance of reproof." (Psalms/Tehillim 6:23)

         "This verse contains a thumbnail description of the three parts of the Torah. Mitzvah, the physical performance of the commandments, is like a lamp. It is a receptacle that contains oil and wick - or electricity and filament - and provides light. So too, one uses hands to affix a mezuzah, feet to rush to the synagogue, wealth to contribute to charity. Like a lamp that uses physical items to provide and sustain light, the body and the appurtenances of the world combine to do G-d's will in a tangible way. But once the oil is consumed and the wick is spent, the lamp is still and dark. Its light is never more than temporary. Even the longest lasting fluorescent bulb will burn out eventually. And the glow of a mitzvah fades away.
         The Torah, however, is different in a basic way. Its light is spiritual. It unites its student with the Source of all wisdom. Just as His wisdom is timeless, so the Torah is timeless and its spiritual capital permanent.
         Then there is the third component of our faith: the way of life is the remonstrance of reproof. The Sages derive from this phrase that man earns his share in the World to Come only through hard work and suffering (Berachos 5a). The way of life in this world is the highway to the World to Come. It is traversed only with difficulty, because the remonstrance of reproof is often unpleasant, especially for people foolish enough to resent criticism. But intelligent people welcome it, relish it, thrive on it. To aspire to the World to Come without recognizing the need for guidance and criticism is like a diamond miner who refuses to dig. Of course there is a price to pay, but man has no greater bargain."

         - The Pirkei Avos Treasury, Vol. 1, Introduction

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