Monthly Archives: January 2012

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:7

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ב,ז  [ו] אף הוא ראה גולגולת אחת צפה על פני המים; אמר לה, על דאטיפת אטיפוך, וסוף מטיפייך יטופון

‘He also saw a skull floating on the water; he said to it: ‘Because you drowned others, they drowned you; and ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.’

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Rav Hirsch responds to this mishna in the following way:

It was obvious to Hillel that the man whose skull was floating on the water had not died by accident but as the result of violence. The head of a corpse floating on the water will not come off; therefore Hillel had to assume that the person had died by violence, and that the murderers had severed the head from the body and then thrown it into the water. Hence the ‘drowning of another and being drowned’ should be interpreted as an allegory rather than an actual description of the way in which the murder was committed. (As it is, the literal meaning of ‘atif’ is not ‘to drown another’ but ‘to wash away’ or ‘to allow to float’.) As others, too, have pointed out, it is hardly likely that Hillel’s intent had been to postulate that every murder victim must have been a murderer himself and that his murderer will be murdered in turn, for such an assumption would not be borne out by fact. Many an innocent man has been a murder victim and not every murderer dies by the hand of another killer. Rather, the thought Hillel wanted to express must have been as follows: Even though a murder may be, in fact, an execution of a Divinely-ordained death sentence, the murderer is still subject to G-d’s judgement for his crime.

On the question of from whose body did the skull come, Rabbi Bogomilsky adds something interesting:

“After the Jewish people walked through the sea onto dry land, and the waters resumed flowing and drowned the Egyptians, Moshe witnesses Pharaoh’s skull floating on the sea.

Hillel was the reincarnation of Moshe, and therefore resembled him in many ways. He, too, served as Nasi of klal Yisrael, exemplified humility, and lived 120 years. Once, Hillel too saw the skull of Pharaoh floating and said to it, ‘Because you drowned the Jewish children in the River Nile, Hashem has punished you measure for measure.

Afterwards, Hillel comforted the Jewish people, saying, ‘Do not despair because of the trials and tribulations confronting you throughout exile. Ultimately, Hashem will come to our salvation and those nations who have been drowning us and afflicting us will be punished by their own methods.’

Thus, Hillel’s message was directed at two separate parties. To the skull he said ‘because you drowned others you were drowned’, and to Klal Yisrael he stated that ‘ultimately those who drown you will themselves be drowned.'”

Rabbi Rosenfeld adds:

Justice is always meted out to evildoers…

Hillel thus saw in this harrowing encounter G-d’s justice in this world. People are not killed randomly; G-d must have allowed it to occur. Although generally G-d permits free will in this world, with few exceptions He would never allow a person to be murdered unless that person had some degree of guilt on the Divine scales. G-d may not have struck the person down Himself: He is “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6), giving man many opportunities to repent. Yet it was He who allowed the other’s murderous designs to be fulfilled. The victim must have in some way been deserving of his fate. The victim certainly might have been a murderer himself — this is the “textbook version” of the justice we would hope to see in this world and which Hillel conjectured might have been the case. Yet regardless, the victim must have had some degree of guilt — however indiscernible — and for that alone did G-d allow such serious crime to go unchecked.

Of course, we are touching upon a difficult theological issue. Why each victim “deserves” his fate is clearly beyond our comprehension. We will learn later, “It is not within our power to explain neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous” (4:19). But again, Hillel was not making an “official” statement. We can never truly say we “know” that all that occurs in this world is correct and an execution of G-d’s justice. All the same, Hillel, perhaps the greatest scholar of a great generation, used this certainly unnerving incident to reaffirm his own pure and simple faith in G-d’s justice — beyond even his comprehension. And our Sages felt it worthwhile to record Hillel’s reflections. Let all future generations know that even the greatest among us could not really explain the injustices he saw around him. In the most general way, yes, but no one can truly fathom G- d’s inscrutable ways. Nevertheless, Hillel accepted. He recognized his own limitations, took in the lesson, reaffirmed his faith, and most importantly, he moved on.

There is an even deeper truth behind Hillel’s statement as noted by the commentators. Hillel saw reward and punishment as not just some Divine act of retribution but as a cause-and-effect cycle. There is an interconnectivity between people and deeds in this world. One who commits a good or bad deed not only deserves reward or punishment but brings about a change in this world. This is true firstly in the most literal sense. Do a favor for your fellow or give him a cheerful greeting, and you will spread good cheer in this world — which your fellow will in turn spread to others. Conversely, introduce violence to your environs — kill another human being, start a gang war — and rage and callousness will be introduced. Respect for human life will deteriorate — and you yourself may become victim to the forces you have unleashed.

But there is a much deeper aspect to this — on the level of the metaphysical. The physical and spiritual planes of reality are interconnected in ways we cannot possibly know or understand. A person’s good or evil deed affects the spiritual and physical environment around him. Good strengthens the bonds connecting the physical world to the spiritual, causing the spiritual light of G-d’s Presence to be more evident in this world. Conversely, evil disrupts the bonds between the spiritual and physical, quite literally making the world a more evil place. Thus, if a man murders, he creates a very real spiritual force of evil in this world. That force unleashed harms both the spiritual and physical layers of reality about. And it will attack those most susceptible to its influences.

And no one is more vulnerable than the creator of the evil himself.

The victim was quite likely a murderer himself — and his murderers will meet the same fate themselves — for this is the direct result and by- product of evil unrestrained. Perpetrate evil in this world, make this world just a little bit less holy, and it may just come back to haunt you.

On this level, punishment is not simply some Divine decree — some magical promise of retribution for your sins. It is the very literal result of the evil you have perpetrated. There are spiritual laws of nature in this world every bit as much as there are physical. And this is what Hillel truly comes to teach us. He saw in this chance encounter the spiritual forces beyond which both initiated and were perpetuating this vicious cycle of violence. Violence begets violence, making the world ever a more violent place. Therefore, let none of us say his own behavior is his own personal business and should be of no concern to others. The Talmud writes, “All of Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuos 39a). We all share this world together, and we all influence and are influenced by one another. Let us all strive together to make it a place of peace, G- dliness and the Divine Presence.

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:6

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ב,ו הוא היה אומר, אין בור ירא חטא, ולא עם הארץ חסיד.  ולא הביישן למד, ולא הקפדן מלמד.  ולא כל המרבה בסחורה, מחכים.  ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש.

He used to say: an empty-headed person (bur) cannot be sin-fearing, nor can an ignorant person (am ha-aretz) be pious; the bashful one cannot learn, nor can the quick-tempered one teach; neither will anyone deeply involved in business become wise. And in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

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Rabbi Bogomilsky clarifies the differences between a ‘bur’ (boor) and an ‘am ha-aretz‘:

“A boor is a person who possesses neither intellectual nor moral virtues, that is, neither learning nor moral conduct. He does not even acquire evil vices; he is void, so to speak, of all good and evil … can produce nothing. A person of this type cannot be sin-fearing because he is unable to know what constitutes a wrongful act.

The ‘am ha’aretz’ is a person who possesses moral, but not intellectual virtues, that is, moral conduct but no learning. He is called an ‘am ha’aretz’ (of the people of the land – a worldly person) since he is valuable for social and civic purposes and he possesses those qualities which benefit the social order.

Such a person can be sin-fearing because he is able to differentiate between good and evil, right an wrong. … Since (he) possesses no learning and does not know the law, he does not know how to rise above the average behaviour and to act in a manner that transcends strict justice.”

All of this is very interesting; however, we have to wonder about the connection between these six different messages and Hillel? rabbi Bogomilsky continues to explain that in order to be neither a ‘boor’ nor a ‘worldly person’, it is necessary to study Torah. These ideas come from Hillel’s own experiences. Hillel was never bashful: According to the Gemara (Yoma 35b), every day he used to work and earn one coin. He would give half to the guard at the Beit Midrash and the other half he would spend on food for his family. One day he earned nothing and the guard would not allow him to enter into the Beit Midrash. Unperturbed, Hillel climbed to the roof and lay near a window to hear the words of Torah delivered by Shemayah and Avtalyon.

Furthermore, Hillel was a great teacher, never denying his students the opportunity to ask questions, even if they seemed stupid or irrational (see Gemara Shabbat 31a). Hillel also preferred studying Torah to earning a living (Gemara Sotah 21a).

The teaching ‘In a place where there are no men strive to be a man’ is shown by the story of how Hillel assumed the position of Nasi: when there was no one qualified to deal with the halachic questions regarding the Pesach offering, Hillel accepted the role because it was clear to him that he was more qualified than anyone else there.

I wonder what our women’s group will make on the emphasis on men in this mishna? How do we strive to ‘be a man’ when we are clearly women??

Perhaps the universal message is that we should be aware of our weaknesses but always strive to overcome them…

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:5

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מסכת אבות פרק ב

הלל אומר, אל תפרוש מן הציבור, ואל תאמין בעצמך עד יום מותך, ואל תדון את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו, ואל תאמר דבר שאי אפשר לשמוע וסופו להישמע.  ואל תאמר לכשאפנה אשנה, שמא לא תפנה

Hillel would say: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day you die. Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place. Do not say something that is not readily understood in the belief that it will ultimately be understood [or: Do not say something that ought not to be heard even in the strictest confidence, for ultimately it will be heard]. And do not say “When I free myself of my concerns, I will study,” for perhaps you will never free yourself.

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Why does this part of the mishna consists of five saying of Hillel?  Essentially, this part of the mishna is dealing with community involvement.

1. Do not separate yourself from the community:

Clearly the value of the community is emphasised in this mishna for much about Judaism and Torah cannot be practised in isolation. For Hillel, it was imperative that one maintain a clear connection with the community, show it support and work toward nurturing it. If you do this then you will merit sharing in both the joy and sorrow of the community and all that it implies.

2. Do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death:

The mishna reminds me of John Donne’s line ‘no man is an island’, warning us to always accept help and be prepared to help others. This is one inherent value of being a part of a greater community. In order to grow consistently we need to always be aware of the impermanence of life and everything that it holds. Nothing is certain, only death.

3. Do not judge your fellow man until you find yourself in his place:

The implication seems to be that it is easy to judge others, rather than to judge one’s self. Part of what we as Jews should be working on is our own development as people, perfecting ourselves, particularly our behaviour. This is essential is we are to live in the image of Hashem. It is all too easy to pass judgement on others and engage in Lashon Hara or idle gossip. The time that we waste doing this type of thing should be spent on introspective and growth. We should refrain from judging until we have stood in Hashem’s place, for it is only he who can judge …

 

 

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 2:4

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מסכת אבות פרק ב

ב,ד  הוא היה אומר, עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו; בטל רצונך מפני רצונו, כדי שיבטל רצון אחרים מפני רצונך.

4. He would also say: Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.

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This is a confusing Mishna.

According to Rabbi Bogomilsky, each person has the ability to remake Hashem’s will. However, the mishna is not just calling on us to do what Hashem wants; but rather, we are advised to make what Hashem desires our own desire. The implication is that we should devote as much time and energy to Torah study and values as we would like to devote to our favourite activity – be it surfing the Internet, watching Television or playing sport. When we try and bring our desires in line with what Hashem desires then we are more likely to reap rewards greater than anything we can imagine.

The mishna is clearly anticipating the fact that we are more attentive to our personal desires, more passionate about football and social networking, than we are about Torah and its values. Here we are reminded to divert these natural passions to Torah. A good analogy is this: our zeal for Torah observance should be same zeal that we have when we break our diets and dive into that heavenly chocolate cake. Nothing can stop us from enjoying the extra large slice!!

Something else to consider: Do we always know what we need? Like a parent who directs his/her child toward the correct action or behaviour or response, so too is Hashem our parent, guiding us toward the just path.

 

History: Pirkei Avot Context

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Dovid Rosenfeld provides a very interesting insight into this context:

We now at last arrive at the actual advice of our mishna, the words of the Men of the Great Assembly. (The Great Assembly was Israel’s primary legislative and judiciary body during the Second Temple era.) As we will see, their advice too was built upon our mishna’s introduction. They recognized that a transition was occurring during their very lifetimes — from the Age of Prophecy to the Age of Wisdom.

If we examine a little more closely the era of the Prophets mentioned in our mishna, we will note that it spans an enormously long and varied period of history. A lot happened during their sole jurisdiction. The period began with the generation immediately after Joshua, with the passing of the Elders who, together with Joshua, led the nation in the conquest and division of the Land of Israel. The period continued with the era of the Judges, the Prophet Samuel, King Saul, the Davidic dynasty, the building of Solomon’s Temple, the secession of the northern tribes into the Kingdom of Israel, the exile (and disappearance) of the Ten Tribes, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the Babylonian Exile, the ascendancy of the Persian Empire, and finally the return to Zion of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the few who came to build the Second Temple. Oh, and by the way, the Purim story occurred somewhere in there as well.

Clearly, much political, military and social history elapsed during this extended period. From any sort of historical standpoint, it is difficult to imagine lumping this entire period into a single era. Yet our Sages — from the perspective of Pirkei Avos — do just that.

The reason for this is because our Sages were viewing Jewish history through an entirely different lens. Regardless of empire, war, expulsion, upheaval, and revolution unfolding around them, Israel’s link to G-d and Sinai was secure. We had prophets. Israel’s greatest men and women received instruction and exhortation directly from G-d’s heavenly emissaries. Our socioeconomic situation rose and fell, and often seemed to hang by a thread. But we had no doubt as to who we were and what our sacred national mission was. G-d was there to tell us and to remind us — in fact, not to let us forget it. He was still in direct communication with Israel, and so we were bound to a Torah and tradition whose import and significance surpassed all other military, political and societal considerations.

The Men of the Great Assembly recognized that in their own lifetimes that era was coming to an end. The few remaining prophets were dying out in the beginning of their days — not to be replaced until the End of Days. In many other ways as well, G-d’s guiding hand was no longer revealed to Israel as it had once been. The Second Temple did not house the Divine Presence in the same manner as the first (see Talmud Yoma 21b). At the same time, however, Torah study was flourishing and reaching new heights — as foreseen by the Prophet Zachariah (4:1-6, see Talmud Sanhedrin 24a).

Thus, the Sages recognized that a new age was dawning: the Age of Wisdom. We would no longer have prophet to enlighten us as to G-d’s lofty plans and designs for us. We would have to seek Him out ourselves. And our single tool for Heavenly inspiration would be the Torah — and the application of our own frail but creative human minds to its infinite wisdom. Our own ability to discern truth and understand the wisdom handed to us from past generations would now be our most precious asset. And it would sustain us through an endless succession of exile and persecution, and for generations on end.

And so, the Men of the Great Assembly advised their generation — and future generations — what their focus must now be: studying the Torah carefully and deliberately, giving it over to our own students, and safeguarding its laws. The advice of our mishna revolves around these ideas.

Yet there is an even deeper message here. My teacher, R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu & www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig), explained as follows: If we connect to G-d through knowledge rather than prophecy there is an inherent danger. We are now the instigators. Our own brains and efforts become our new source of inspiration. And in such a situation, it is easy to feel that we are the center of our own religion, that we have sought and found G-d — and we did it on our own terms. If any given law makes sense to me, if I see it as correct and inspiring, I will observe it. If not, it is out of the realm of my concept of religion. I have found G-d — and I have created Him in my own image.

This, in spite of the awesome beauty of Torah study, presents an enormous danger. And so, the Sages found need to warn us: Our knowledge is valid only insofar as it allows us to connect to our G-d. We may study and contemplate the Torah’s timeless laws, but we are not its arbiters, nor do we form the centers of our own religion. We are only the bearers of the Torah — understanding it to the best of our abilities and passing along intact that which preceded us.

Thus, the mishna’s first statement: “Be deliberate in judgment.” Do not be quick to pass judgment — not on others nor on any other perspective on life or wisdom. Do not suppose religion is valid only to the extent you understand. It is not our job to pass judgment on the wisdom handed down to us, or to be so sure of our understanding as to reject out of hand all who disagree. We must be exceedingly careful in judgment — and certainly in rejection — of any part or aspect of the wisdom of the Torah.

Second, our Sages tell us to raise many students. Our own knowledge is often limited and myopic. We view wisdom from our own perspective alone. By raising many students, we ensure that the Torah will not be limited to any single approach or perspective. Torah knowledge must be disseminated to as wide an audience as possible. (Some even use the Internet for such purposes… )

R. Zweig noted further that the Hebrew word used here for “raise” is “ha’amidu” — which literally means “cause to stand.” Do not just teach students what *you* have to say, creating carbon copies of yourself (to use a rather dated expression). Cause them to stand on their own feet — to question, to think for themselves, and to establish their own unique relationship with the Torah. These are the hallmarks of Jewish education. We will then have a strong, national connection to the Torah and a rich gene pool of wisdom to draw from. And no one scholar, no matter how great, will be able to claim he has the one true approach to the Torah. The more people we have connecting to Torah and the more approaches to wisdom, the wider the reach and relevance of the Torah to the nation as a whole — and the more lasting and meaningful a connection we will have to Sinai.

Lastly, our Sages exhort us to create fences for Torah observance, to safeguard Torah law through Rabbinic injunction. (A simple example is “muktza”, forbidding us to handle e.g. a pencil on the Sabbath lest one forget and come to write.) Here again we see the same critical message. We may today connect to G-d through our own intellect, but we must never let that intellect become the determinant of how and when we will serve G-d.

We have all heard the following type of argument, in many forms and in many contexts: “The Torah only forbade lighting a fire on the Sabbath when it involved rubbing two sticks together and required a great exertion. Nowadays it’s just a matter of flipping a switch and in no way compromises our Sabbath ‘rest’, and so there’s no reason to forbid it.” Or more simply: “I don’t feel commandment x is meaningful to me. I get nothing out of it. There’s no reason to alter my lifestyle just to accommodate some dated old ritual.”

The Sages thus warn us, and in no uncertain terms: Our tradition is sacrosanct and untouchable. We use our wisdom to study and interpret our tradition, but never to judge or replace it. If anything, we must use our wisdom and creativity to further safeguard the Torah’s laws. We are not the owners of G-d’s word nor the centers of our own faith. The intellect may be ours, but we subordinate it to G-d’s infinite Torah. And so our own human wisdom, rather than being a tool for revision and corruption, becomes yet another sacred link in Israel’s timeless tradition.