Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Good Manners... Before Torah!

During the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot we concentrate a part of our learning on the teachings of Pirkei Avot – Ethics of Our Fathers. These 6 chapters of Mishnayot (teachings) deal with everyday life for the "everyday" type of person. There's no need to be a serious Torah scholar to master these teachings. Yet even the greatest Torah student should be involved in internalizing the powerful messages revealed and hidden in these global essentials of life.

There is no Talmud to the teachings of Pirkei Avot. There are no arguments of the general give and take found in the Talmud. One finds only the simply teachings of what life is and should be all about. In fact, were these teachings not actually included in the Torah, even the "average" person could come to realize their importance on their own. Such a person would even think these values as simply just "the right thing!"

We might ask ourselves though – why it is here, at this point in time, that we concentrate on these teachings. We could learn these teachings any time of the year. Why do we concentrate on them at this particular period of the Jewish year?

Many of us are quick to forget – even though our entire purpose of counting the Omer is to awaken us to it – that we left Mitzrayim (Egypt) to enter the Land of Israel. Through our journey to Egypt, we would ultimately become the nation we were destined to become. From being slaves of Pharaoh, we were to become "slaves" of G‑d Himself. But the journey and the transition from one master to Another would not just take time, it would also take knowing what would be required to make the transition a successful one. Though on our way to Israel – there was one important stop along the way. Just 50 days after leaving Egypt, we would receive the Torah itself. This day would be celebrated as Shavuot – the day that we received the Torah.

49 days of another kind of journey were experienced even before the actual receiving of the Torah. Likewise, as we move across from the festival of Pesach to the festival of Shavuot, we journey through these 49 days each year. During this time we concentrate on these special teachings of Pirkei Avot.

Pirkei Avot teaches us about simple life manners. Certainly, having one's fork on the left side of the plate, and knife on the right may well be important. Opening the door for a lady to walk through first may well indicate proper etiquette in life (though it's highly unlikely this would ever have reached a real Torah standard!) Not leaving the dinner table before everyone has finished their meal may also indicate upright conduct and one that should be upheld by all… And sitting up straight when eating may certainly show dignified table manners! But it's more.

From the way we greet each other (this includes an actual "Good Day" to a fellow man we may pass by on the street) to throwing our garbage in the bin (and not having to feel it's someone else' job to do) – to acknowledging that someone else might actually know more than we do and humbling ourselves to their wisdom. From considering our own worth in this world – and preparation to the next to appreciating the value of another human being – whoever they may be. From respecting another driver on the road, to acknowledging that our friend's money is as important to them as ours is to us! From simply being polite and non-judgmental of everybody else in the world, to being able to consider that when wrongs were done – there is always room to allow for forgiveness. The concepts are of course infinite!

It's about good manners and being a decent human being. Etiquette?!  Humbled behaviour and a recognition of others may be a more suited expression. It takes the artificiality out of societies norms and puts an emphasis on being a decent human being.

Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) in the very first chapter of his teachings (Tana Devei Eliyahu) teaches us that "Proper conduct comes before Torah." If one is truly interested in acquiring Torah (which takes 48 ways to obtain), one cannot even begin to approach this task, unless one precedes the undertaking with the acquisition of being a decent human being. 

Though water can cause beautiful plants and tress to grow – this is only true when the seeds are suitable from the beginning. As for weeds, watering them will produce nothing less than bigger weeds! Those expecting sweet smelling roses after watering their weeds, may find themselves sadly disillusioned when they see just what has grown!

So too does the Torah produce the person who is ready to accept it. If this person has refined themselves and is already a fine human being, then the Torah will refine him further elevating him to the level of angels. But the "Torah scholar" (even when dressed in the finest garments sporting the longest beard) who has not yet understood the value of good behaviour will amount to nothing more (in the long run) than a bigger weed. 

Though the Torah scholar may be filled with the holiest of books in his "insides', a trip to the Mikvah accompanied by pushing every other person, throwing one's garbage on the floor, and literally kicking another out of the shower so that *they* can shower will do little to show the value of what the Torah is doing to him. If anything, it clearly points to his inconsistency in understanding that the Mikvah – the place he wishes to visit to pure himself – has become a place of much impurity!

Torah can only be acquired if one has first mastered the basics of decent human behaviour. Since Shavuot is a time of receiving the Torah, we are granted 7 weeks first, in which to spend learning about simple decent conduct, so that we can be prepared to receive the Torah and grow as human beings. Therefore there is no greater time period to begin learning these teachings than the period leading to Shavuot – the time of receiving the Torah. Derech Eretz Kadmah LaTorah. Proper behaviour – proper human conduct and respect – precedes Torah. You don't need to be a giant of a scholar to understand this… but you must at least be a decent human being.

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