Shiur #00: Introductory Shiur

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein


     This is the first shiur regarding Derekh Chayyim, Maharal's voluminous interpretation of Avot.


     Maharal's biography does not figure too obviously in his perush (where it does, I'll point it out), so we will sketch a basic outline.  Maharal lived for almost all of the 16th century (there is debate about his exact birth-date, but he certainly lived over 90 years), serving as a rabbi in several communities, although he is best known for his tenure in Prague.  He supposedly met with many of the important personages of his day, including the King of Czechoslovakia and the astronomer Tycho Brahe.  He wrote many works, including a super-commentary on Rashi on Torah, a commentary on many of the aggadot in the Talmud, the work on Avot, and several freestanding works (meaning, not commentaries), taking up various topics of deep Jewish interest. 


     In his perush on Avot, the element we will find most interesting is the context he provides for the mishnayot, meaning, the topics he manages to read into seemingly straightforward texts.  That will obviously only become clear as we get to actual Mishna, but I thought I'd make the point now in preparation.





     On to his introduction.  The first interesting point to note is that at the end of the introduction Maharal appends a note declaring that all references to non-Jews in the commentary do not, of course, mean the non-Jews of his day who are wonderful people, and by whose grace the Jewish community prospers, but refers only to the non-Jews of yore, idol worshippers and heathens all.  Ordinarily, I would immediately assume that this was done because of the censor, the medieval and early modern Christian authority who would remove all offensive parts of Jewish texts. 


     However, such a declaration should have come on the cover page or somewhere likely to meet to meet the censor's eye.  Perhaps it was for the censor, and the censor had to read the whole text, but I thought it was worth noting.





     Maharal's fundamental point is going to be that since Avot deals with issues of ethics (mostly questions of how to conduct oneself in ordinary human interaction), it would seem not to fit into the Mishna, a work of Torah, the Divinely-ordained Law.  He answers that ethical perfection only comes from controlling, if not restricting, one's involvement with the physical aspects of life (such as all physical pleasures).  Generally, people are only willing to do so out of dedication to a higher goal, such as Torah and mitzvot.  In that way, the truths of Avot really are part of the Torah, since it is only a higher commitment that would lead people to accept these truths. 


     Note that Maharal's anti-physical comments (and we'll see more in the commentary) are not necessarily ascetic (meaning, denying all value to pleasure); rather, he repeatedly stresses the need for control of physical pleasures and the human tendency to stray too far in the direction of indulgence.  Aside from our interest in the point itself, the way Maharal expresses that point is fascinating.


     He begins with a verse from Mishlei, "Ki Ner Mitzva ve-Torah Or, ve-Derekh Chayyim Tokhehot Mussar - For a Mitzva is like a candle, and Torah like light, and the way of life is with rebukes of proper conduct," not apparently relevant to Avot.  This was, in fact, a common artifice of sermonics at the time, to start with a seemingly completely unrelated verse, and eventually weave it back into the topic at hand.


     He then differentiates between knowledge humans could achieve on their own, which he identifies with the words "derekh Chayyim" in the verse, and areas having to do with God, where intellect cannot hope to have real input.  For that aspect of life, Torah is necessary.  There are two ways that divine knowledge is communicated to man: through Torah as text and through Mitzva activity.  Mitzva activity, Maharal notes (based on a statement in the Gemara), provides only momentary access to the Divine, while studying Torah provides continuing connection.  It is for this reason that the verse refers to Torah as light and Mitzva as a candle: a candle gives light only while it is actually lit (so it is connected to a body in some way), whereas disembodied light exists forever.




     Torah's eternal qualities also explain for Maharal the references to Torah as an "Etz Chayyim" - a "tree of life."  Maharal contrasts the word Chayyim, which to him means "everlasting," with the word chai, which simply means, "alive."  Torah is an etz, a tree, because it has roots in God Himself (and through Torah, we can connect to God).  Whereas it lasts forever, it is an etz Chayyim.  People, on the other hand, are referred to as chai, alive, but not Chayyim, since they are not eternal.


     Although he does not draw the connection explicitly, Maharal has provided an interesting interpretation of the story of Gan Eden in Bereishit.  When Adam and Hava eat of the Etz haDa'at, the Tree of Knowledge, Hashem worries that they will eat from the Etz haChayyim and live forever; to forestall this, he removes them from the Garden.  I have always wondered why God created the Tree of Life, and the big worry He had that man would eat of it.


     In Maharal's reading, that Etz was Torah, so that God was worrying that Adam and Hava would "eat" from that tree and live forever.  Why should that be a problem? It seems to me (and I have other proofs as well, which I will not belabor here) that Hashem did not want to give the Torah until people were ready for it in some way.  Were they to take it too soon, they might live forever, as the verse says, but many important elements would be missing. Once Adam ate from the Etz haDa'at, the worry was that he would come to Torah before being properly prepared therefor, and to avoid that, He had to remove them.  I find this interesting because it explains what the Etz haChayyim was (which is unclear in the verses) and Hashem's worry about their eating therefrom.





     Now Maharal turns to the notion of derekh eretz, proper conduct, and says that it is referred to as a "derekh" (path) because of the need to follow its dictates exactly, without yielding to physical nature.  That physical nature will be central to the notion that derekh Chayyim, the path of life, requires tokhehot mussar, rebukes and reprimands.  Maharal notes a Gemara in Berakhot that says that three gifts from God are acquired only with yisurim, suffering: Torah, Israel, and the World to Come.


     He suggests that whereas these three are all holy and less connected to the physical world, we need yisurim to reduce our interest in the physical.  To prove Israel's holiness, he notes that avira de-Eretz Yisrael Machkim - the air of the Land of Israel is reputed to make one more intelligent, and that prophecy occurs only in the Land of Israel.  The holiness that interests him, in other words, is that which shows a nonphysical element to the Land.


           Before we get to tokhekhot mussar, the rebukes and suffering that teach us how to follow the derekh Chayyim, let us just be clear that Maharal has a specific attitude towards the physical: while it is necessary for human life, at the same time it poses a danger to spiritual development, as it draws people towards excessive involvement in the physical.  Part of holiness is learning to restrict one's involvement in the physical, a restriction that involves real suffering, as he recognizes.  In any case, the notion that reducing the physical requires suffering then explains why following the derekh Chayyim needs words of mussar, of restriction, since the proper path, even within ordinary human behavior, is to limit one's involvement in the physical.





     One more piece will round out Maharal's demonstration of why Avot belongs in the Mishna.  So far, he has said that Avot teaches derekh Chayyim, the path people follow as a function of their intellect, which would ordinarily not be part of Torah, which taps into the Divine.  However, since true dedication to derekh Chayyim requires limiting the physical, it requires yissurim of some sort, in this case of tokhehot mussar. Still, as far as Maharal is concerned, he has not yet justified Avot's place in the canon of Torah.


     The Gemara in Bava Kama mentions three areas of study for one who wants to become a "chasid," the word (in the Talmud and medieval writings) for one who has achieved spiritual perfection: Berakhot, Nezikin (Damages or Torts), or Avot.  While others see these as mutually exclusive perspectives, Maharal suggests that each might be appropriate, depending on which type of holiness one seeks to perfect.  For perfection of the soul (and of one's place in society), Nezikin teaches how to avoid damaging others (and how to compensate them if they are damaged through him).  A person who adheres strictly to these laws has developed a generous enough soul to genuinely desire the welfare of others and ensure that he/she does not hurt them.  For perfection of the body (a more personal perfection), Avot teaches a person to control his or her inclinations/lusts, so that they have those fully in check.  Finally, Berakhot teaches perfection of the intellect (spiritual perfection), since it trains people to always have God's name on their lips, and to pause before every action to recognize God's part in the world.


     Having thus shown how Avot contributes to religious perfection, not just to the areas of human interaction, Maharal can rest comfortably that it belongs in the corpus of Mishna.  It constitutes a vital part of the verse summarizing how to gain knowledge of God: Ner Mitzva - the momentary spiritual benefit of a Mitzva action, Torah Or - the spiritual light and access to the Divine provided by Torah, and Derekh Chayyim - the path of how to live in a way that controls the physical so as to allow for full spiritual growth.  Next week, Be-Ezrat Hashem, we will begin with the first Mishna of Avot.