ETHICS OF OUR FATHERS:
HOW DOES IT GUIDE US
TOWARDS GROWTH?by Rebbetzin Sara E. Freifeld, Ph.D
Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Action – Summer 1993
Union of Orthodox Congregations of America, New York
Each year as we re-read Ethics of our Fathers, we should approach it afresh, seeking a new thread from which to weave its expansive vistas in our living. How can we integrate its teaching into our daily lives?
Ethics of our Fathers teaches us by reducing our moral choices to a minimum. The essence of Torah wisdom is compressed into its brief and pithy contents, and through it we are challenged to live life at its greatest pitch and at its most sublime heights. There is so much Torah in its teachings, so much self-examination of one’s motives, that an average person feels intimidated by its demands for self-scrutiny. Can a normal human being attain its goals or are only a few people able to reach such lofty status? How does Ethics of our Fathers guide us towards change so that we can become all that it demands of us?
We find that before the mussar (ethical teachings), G-d speaks through the Sages of Ethics of our Fathers and offers us the greatest reassurance of our success: “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come, as it is said: ‘Thy people, all of them righteous, shall inherit the earth forever, they are the flower of My repeated planting, the work of My hands, wherein I glory.'” This passage, taken from the tractateSanhedrin, serves as an introduction to the entire work and sets the mood needed to approach the essence of Torah that it contains. Thus, before we begin the difficult and painful process of self-examination and self judgment, we are given the greatest encouragement possible: Know who you are and what your purpose is in this world–“You are the flowers of G-d’s plantings.”
Consider how much love is in this verse’s words. It seems to say “Take heart, be of good spirit. Trust in yourself. You can succeed. You have the potential to inherit both this world and the next.” G-d affirms us by seeing us all as righteous. We are the beautiful flowers that He has nurtured and replanted over and over again throughout our long history in order to watch us blossom in a new place, a new context, a different soil. In each planting, the flowers emerge fresh. We have never disappointed Him; we have always blossomed under the most difficult of soils and the harshest terrain. We flower not once, but each time. We are perennial, forever renewing ourselves for Him so that His garden will be joyful and fragrant.
This is how each chapter begins: with great love, with affirmation and promise so that we take courage and allow the mussar to enter our hearts. This is the entrance into Ethics of our Fathers, the model from which to learn how to give and take direction.
Thus, we begin any challenge and process of internal growth by first confirming the person. Ethics of our Fathers initiates each chapter with the affirmation of our beauty and the glory of our destiny as individuals in the Jewish Nation. Whether we are addressing ourselves or another person, we speak of goodness before uttering a word of rebuke. In this way we allow a person’s individuality to remain strong and intact. And when we offer mussar, we don’t look for results, but focus on process. We allow the time necessary for development and change, like G-d who replants us again and again, never despairing of our ability to grow. This, therefore, is how we must speak in order to be heard, in order to create the space necessary for self transformation. We learn from Ethics of our Fathers to never wound in the process of helping a person grow.
This was the approach used by my husband, Rav Shlomo Freifeld, ob”m, in his dealings with the hundreds of young people who came to him looking for guidance and direction in emotional and spiritual growth. Rav Shlomo believed that the secret of all success rested on the sense of self and the self-esteem of the individual. His first task with his students was to rebuild the individual person by focusing on the good. His yeshiva, Shor Yoshuv, was a storehouse of self-esteem where each person was nourished by learning about his own potential for goodness and growth. He believed that the home or school that does not build the self-esteem of its members is in great danger of destroying the very people it is meant to protect and develop. The child, including our own inner child, must be treated with respect. The most important teaching that takes place in the home and in the school is the teaching of attitudes about oneself. Facts can always be learned later on, once one’ s own sense of self-worth and dignity is firmly founded.
We learn from the introductory passage another important lesson in the process of giving and receiving “mussar” in order to encourage people to grow: we must teach people to think big and to be big by returning them to the sense of the Tzuras Ha’Adam, the image of Man, from which they were originally created. The Jewish People are reminded that the nation is the work of G-d’s hands, that it will inherit the world forever, that its purpose is to glorify the Creator.
Once you understand who you are and who you can be, you can begin the process of self-generation. You begin to change because you are no longer bound by the narrow vision that made you into a small and sinful person. You transcend your problem and now a new world has opened up to you. You begin to feel your strengths, to see the dawning of new possibilities for yourself. You begin to change. You are no longer hostage to your old self.
My husband had a favorite saying when people came to him with problems. He would say to them “Don’t be strong, be big.” The strength will come from your bigness, from your desire to go beyond your narrow limitations. Forget your background, your personal history, your past failures. All of these can be used as excuses for stagnation and lack of growth. “Be big.” Fill your life with the possibility of your own potential. Explore what it means to be a Jew, to live according to the blueprint of the Torah, to the vision of Man that it entails. Every Jew can succeed: “All Israel has a portion in the World to Come.”
This belief in the power of success and self-esteem can transform a human life in a miraculous way. You begin by taking small steps. You master one line or one small task at a time. You give yourself a goal you can reach. You start with a small change in character development or in the pattern of your day. You change one thing, no matter how small, and you reap the rewards of growth. Success builds success. You begin to learn that the next step is not more difficult, it is only different. This is what it means to be a Jew: we are eternally searching to better ourselves, to improve our character, to improve our society, to bring a rectification to the entire world, to come so close to G-d that we feel His Presence in every aspect of our lives.
Poised against the lofty heights of Man’s potential, Ethics of our Fathers plays with a contrapuntal theme: the lowliness of Man. The contrast of these two perspectives and the tension between them produces a complex symphony that integrates the Jew’s awareness of his greatness and his personal insignificance. Thus, the first verse of the third chapter begins on what would appear to be a dissonant note from the previous introductory statement: “Akavyah ben Mahalalel said, ‘Reflect upon three things, and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know whence you came, where you are going, and before Whom you will have to render account and reckoning. ‘Whence you came’– from a putrid drop. ‘Where are you going’–to a place of dust, of decay and vermin. ‘Before whom you will have to render account and reckoning’–before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.'”
Against this statement of our humble beginnings and our inevitable end, Rabbi Akiva gives this perspective: “Beloved is Man, for he was created in God’s image. Still greater was the expression of this love in that it was made known to him that he was created in His image, as it is said in Genesis ‘In the image of G-d did He create Man.'”
In order for Man to know his own greatness, he must also recognize his limitations. He is a being fated for death and decay. Our body, the entire physical world that surrounds us is a temporary instrument in the hands of G-d. We have been “planted” in our Creator’s garden for a short while in order that we find our way back to Him. Just as we must know our greatness, we must know the limitation of time and space that circumscribe our life. From this perspective, knowing our mortality, that we have not been allotted an indeterminate lifetime, is a kindness. It forces us to review the course of our life and gives us the impetus to change and to grow, because “The time is short, the task is great, the master is demanding.”
Furthermore, at the end of our lives the Master will demand an accounting after which we will be re-united with His radiant presence and replanted in the Garden of Eden, there to grow into our ultimate plenitude.
What is the nature of this accounting? Our rabbis tell us that G-d will ask us not why were you not like Moses, nor like Isaiah. He will merely ask us why we had not been ourselves. Our loving Father needs our individuality, our spiritual individuality, for that is the part that will return to Him and give account. “My child”, He will say, “Why weren’t you, you? It was your uniqueness for which I longed. I wanted and waited for your Sabbaths, your Holidays, your prayers, your Psalms. It was your voice that I yearned to hear. I had my Moses and my Isaiah, but I did not have a ‘you’ before. The special task of your life can never be done by anyone else nor will there ever be another opportunity for that unique ‘you’ to fulfill its mission in this world.” Ethics of our Fathers reminds us of this again and again. As G-d expects our service to be unique to each of us, we too must remind ourselves to adjust our expectations to the unique personality of each person within our web of relationships.
In order to accomplish the tasks of our lives, Ethics of our Fathers teaches us to observe our own thinking and our own behavior, to look at our goals and desires, to examine and review them in order to change them for the better. In the world-view of the Torah, Man has the capacity to disengage from his own thinking, to distance himself from the prison of his negative thoughts and failings and to learn about himself. By examining our emotions, our fantasies, and our ambitions, Ethics of our Fathers makes us conscious of the workings of our own mind. There is no better self-help book in the world than Ethics of our Fathers. It contains the secret to self-scrutiny and change by affirming our value as Jews and our potential for lofty self-transcendence.