Sunday, 4 May 2008

Learning Pirkei Avos - Ethics of our Fathers - Between Pesach and Shavuos

The period between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot - the festival of receiving the Torah, is one filled with true growth! We work on ourselves by improving our character traits. There are 7 main emotive characteristics which we are required to improve upon, and within these there are 7 of each, making a total of 49 character traits. Through achieving this growth, we merit the 50th level - the 50th day of the counting of the Omer - none other than Shavuos itself - the receiving of the Torah.

Our working on ourselves makes us fitting vessels to be able to receive the Torah in purity. When we are balanced within ourselves, we are ready to accept the Torah and fulfill it's requirements. Naturally all Jews are required to fulfill the Mitzvos - the commandments - of the Torah, but when one is balanced in one's emotions, one can fulfill the Mitzvos in an even more beautiful manner. In short, what is necessary is taking powerful lights of giving, and balance them with vessels that can receive them. Whereas emotions of anger, jealousy and the like can overwhelm one, literally destroying one's own self, when one has learned how to use one's emotions correctly, one can give of oneself in the correct amounts.

BALANCE IS THE KEY! One has to strive to keep oneself focused on what needs to be done, and do so in the correct way without overwhelming oneself, others or G-d Almighty in the process!

As we are working on ourselves, and looking for the best guidance to follow, it is fitting and has become the custom to study the section of Oral Law known as Pirkei Avos - Ethics of our Fathers during this period of time.

The Torah says that Derech Eretz Kadmah LeTorah - good behavior precedes Torah. Once one's foundations for life are set, one can easily build without causing the entire structure to crumble. Much like a house is built by first setting up solid foundations that go deep into the ground, so too when it comes to Torah growth, one needs to set up proper foundations so that the building can rest upon the ground with strength and power - without being blown away by the wind.

There are three main areas we need to work on:
  1. Our relationship with ourselves
  2. Our relationship with others
  3. Our relationship with G-d Himself
Probably the best text as the most basic foundation for all these things, is the Ethics of the Fathers. Just six chapters of learning, and one can become an expert in knowing how to balance oneself with oneself, with others and with G-d Himself.

The custom has become to learn one chapter of these ethics each week between Pesach and Shavuos. Since there are 7 weeks, one completes the entire tractate during this period. There are those, however, who feel that the work required is ongoing - and certainly a great preparation for the upcoming festivals thereafter - namely Rosh Hashanah - the beginning of the new Jewish year, and Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Therefore, there are many that have the custom to continue to learn one chapter each week (after the Mincha prayers of Shabbat afternoon) - during this period of time, completing the learning of Pirkei Avos 3 times by the time Rosh Hashana comes around.

We have plenty of learning to keep us going on a regular basis - see other important learning projects under "Learning One on One" in this blog. And now, we have the good fortune to focus some of our learning on practical ethical and good behavior traits, making us fitting to receive the Torah in purity and prepare well in advance for the period of repentance encountered shortly thereafter.


It seems though that everyone is an expert when it comes to good ethics. In fact, we all seem to know what's right! Besides, there really are so many good books available, what could these 6 chapters teach us that we don't already know?! More than this, are they really G-d given - or are they perhaps simply good steps to take, as understood by the Rabbis of these teachings?

Perhaps the very first Mishna with brief commentary tells it!

"Moses received the Torah from Mount Sinai, and he transfered it to Joshua. Joshua transfered it to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets transfered it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things, "Be deliberate in judgement; and raise up many students; and make a fence for the Torah."

The great commentator Rabbi Ovadiah MiBartenuro says, "...and the nations of the world also wrote books according to the fabrications of their hearts in the ways of ethics, how a person should behave with his friend. THEREFORE THE TEACHER OF THE MISHNA BEGAN WITH THIS - Moses received the Torah from Sinai. This teaches you that the attributes and the ethics in this tractate were not fabricated by the sages of the Mishna, but rather, EVEN THESE were said at Sinai!"

Even basic ethics must be learned from the Torah. There is no such thing as learning good behavior from the books outside of Torah. When it comes to proper behavior, we need to learn it directly from the Torah itself. We may think we know what is good behavior - and what it means to "be a good person." But if we are not following the teachings as included in Pirkei Avos, we are following the fabrications made through the hearts of men of just flesh and blood.

Set aside some time to learn these teachings. They seem to be simple, and barely the real meat of Torah, yet in fact, these are the bases for good and decent behavior. Foundations for being able to fulfill the rest of the Torah in purity and correctness, with goodness and kindness.

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