Shiur #01: Chapter 1

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers

By Rav Moshe Taragin

Shiur #01: Chapter 1

Pirkei Avot opens with the famous 'list' delineating the stages in the process of our masora's transmission: "Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Yeshoshua, who transmitted it to the Zekeinim..." This lineage lies at the heart of our tradition: the Torah we study and the laws to which we adhere were delivered to Moshe in an inalienable fashion, and accurately transmitted throughout the generations. This precept constitutes such a seminal feature of religion that many have pondered its placement specifically at the outset of Pirkei Avot. A historical survey of such critical importance should clearly have served as an introduction or prelude to the entire body of Mishna. Why did Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nassi, in his redaction of the mishna, insert this list as the introduction to Pirkei Avot?

Among numerous suggested answers, I would like to highlight the approach adopted by the Meiri. Typically, the landscape of ritual - the mitzvot bein adam la-Makom - is both concrete and universal. Halakhic obligations can be defined in specific terms, and, more importantly, these parameters apply universally. For example, each and every Jew must consume a ke-zayit of matza on the 15th of Nissan, regardless of context. By contrast, the world of interpersonal behavior - bein adam la-chaveiro - as well as the inner world of religious identity - what may be termed bein adam le-atzmo - are far less precise. The world of character development and moral and ethical pursuit is highly dependent upon individual context and situational factors. The amorphous nature of this realm is best captured by the Ramban, in his commentary to Devarim 6:18. Recognizing the dynamic nature of bein adam la-chaveiro, the Torah could not enumerate endless scenarios and legislate in an exhaustive or comprehensive manner. Instead, it demarcated general guidelines (the various mitzvot and issurim of bein adam la-chaveiro) while issuing a general call to moral and ethical sensibility: ve-asita ha-yashar ve-hatov - meaning, act in a manner which is virtuous and honorable. The Torah cannot be expected to iterate proper conduct in the innumerable contexts which life presents. Therefore, adherence to its laws cannot be seen as sufficient; attention to the ethical spirit which underwrites the system is crucial.

It is specifically in this context that the 'transmission sequence' must be emphasized. In the 'precise' world of bein adam la-Makom, the fidelity of the transmission is assumed. However, the relevance of masora to the 'vague' world of interpersonal conduct may legitimately be questioned. In response, the Mishna underscores the masora as a prelude to Avot: though the lessons of Avot are by nature less precise and more fluid, their basic essence still stems from Sinai. Moshe was endowed with fundamental patterns of legislated behavior, and these outlines created a blueprint which was amplified throughout the successive listed generations. This process yielded the body of ethics which govern our moral development and which is encapsulated in Avot.

Mishna 3

Antigonus Ish Socho would declare: "Do not act as a servant who serves his master solely with the anticipation of reward; instead, worship as a slave without expectation of reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you."

This foundational statement about the motive of religious behavior and the role of reward and punishment was both a powerful and provocative pronouncement. It became part of the charter of Judaism, but also lead to tragic apostasy. Two of Antigonus' students were so befuddled by his statement that they formed two splinter groups, which seceded from traditional Rabinnic Judaism. Perceiving that their teacher had disavowed afterlife, they embarked on hedonistic lifestyles which rejected halakhic abstinence.

Understanding this statement in a balanced manner requires distinguishing between the terms 'peras' and 'sekhar.' The former denotes a prize - an artificial reward which in no manner stems naturally from the achievement. A parent may decide to reward a child for polite behavior with a candy. The candy in no way is a product of that behavior, nor does it naturally reinforce such conduct. By contrast, the term sekhar may refer to a situation which is more a result than a reward. For example, if someone leads a moderate lifestyle, his 'reward,' or sekhar, may be a balanced routine. The reward in this instance stems directly and naturally from the behavior.

Antigonus demanded that Judaism not be converted into a childish religion promising rewards for self-restraint or self-control. Instead, at least ideally, a person should recognize the self-sufficient value of a religious lifestyle and pursue this behavior with no need for external justification or incentive. As the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Teshuva (10:2), in an approximate citation of this mishna, "he should act correctly because it is correct" (oseh et ha-emet mipnei she-hu emet).

Judaism does not renounce the concept of reward in the afterlife; instead, it casts that reward and olam ha-ba in general as an 'extension,' or continuation, of this world. A person develops religious consciousness during his stay in this world and experiences that level in the next world without the constraints and impediments of physical life, which thwart that development here on earth. Again, as the Rambam adds, "he acts correctly because it is correct AND THE BENEFITS DEVELOP IN ITS WAKE" (ve-sof ha-tova la-vo bi-glala). In fact, Antigonus did not assert that mitzvot should be performed with the intent to deny reward (al menat SHE-LO lekabel peras), but rather claimed that mitzvot should be performed INDEPENDENT of the incentive of reward (she-lo al menat le-kabel peras). Indeed, there are variant versions of Avot which do suggest the former syntax (al menat she-lo le-kabel peras), but the commonly accepted and seemingly most authoritative version (she-lo al menat le-kabel peras) does not reject reward as much as reconfigure its function and content.