Shiur #7: Perek 1, Mishnayot 12-13

  • Rav Gidon Rothstein



Hillel and Shammai received from them.  Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aharon: loving peace, pursuing peace, loving creatures, and bringing them close to Torah.




The next pair to consider are Hillel and Shammai, probably the most famous of the zugot leaders of the Jewish people.  Perhaps what made them so well-known was the continuing debate in the Mishna between their respective students or "Houses," so that a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel is a familiar fixture in Jewish literature, whether halakhic or aggadic (strictly legal or more related to Midrash/Jewish thought).  Interestingly, the gemara says that it was in the time just after Hillel and Shammai, when the students did not study as they should have, that disputes became epidemic among the Jewish people.  Although he does not explicitly mention this point, Maharal introduces his discussion of Hillel and Shammai by saying that these mishnayot focus on avoiding machloket (dispute).  This week's discussion, however, does not focus on that in particular.


     We meet Hillel first, and Avot devotes three mishnayot to Hillel's thoughts, which is remarkable if we consider that it had devoted only one to each of the previous thinkers.  For this week, we will study the first two of the mishnayot that record Hillel's ideas. 


Hillel's first recorded thoughts are perhaps his most famous.  A person should be a student of Aharon the High Priest:  a lover of peace, a chaser of peace, and a supporter of people who brings them closer to Torah.



     Maharal questions why Hillel chooses to group the traits in the first Mishna under the rubric of being "mi-talmidav shel Aharon (among the disciples of Aaron)."  Could Hillel just as easily have skipped that introduction and urged people to love peace?


     Maharal suggests that bringing peace is the essential task of the priests, and particularly the High Priest.  As the ones who bring offerings in the Temple, priests make peace between people and their God.  So, too, Aharon created peace among people by his various activities.  In calling a person who engages in such activities a student of Aharon, the mishna is reminding us that this was the central mission of Aharon and all the kohanim:  to reunify those who are separated, whether or not the distance was from God, Torah, or other people.


     I want to make a point about what Maharal has done here.  His question seems to focus on why the mishna would bother attributing this set of actions to Aharon.  His response, that this was Aharon's principal contribution, does not really answer the question, since we still do not know why the mishna chose to stress that.  Rather, Maharal's answer explains why it is true that someone who has these characteristics is "mi-talmidav shel Aharon."  Why the Mishna puts it in these terms for us remains unanswered.  Perhaps once we know it is correct to characterize Aharon this way, and that these were the essential characteristics of a priest, one who adopts these traits is acting as a priest (regardless of his actual lineage), qualifying him as a student of Aharon.  Some people may even ignore the adjuration to chase peace but could adopt these qualities to emulate Aharon the High Priest.


     One more side point is that Maharal's view of the priesthood is far from the ritual version we might assume from the dictates of halakha.  As far as a strictly legal view would have it, priests are the guardians of the Temple, teachers of Torah, and people whose lives were unnaturally dedicated to Torah, mitzvot, and ritual purity.  That is, they did not attempt to live ordinary lives.  Rather, they pursued lives of purity, perhaps as an example to others of what the ideal should be.  In that way, others could have a clear conception of what they can demand of themselves to achieve in as many facets of their real lives as possible.


     Maharal has added an extremely important dimension to the kohanim's responsibilities - peace.  While their Temple service certainly increases the peace between Jews and God, Maharal has generalized that to assuming peace-seeking was part of the kohanim's role in general.  They were not, then, just holy-men in our midst; they were integral components of a functioning society, working to insure peaceful coexistence among all Jews.




     Having explained the search for peace as a way to repair ruptures, Maharal now can explain why peace needs "chasing (rodef shalom)."  Since people who are arguing tend to be far apart from each other (at least emotionally, if not physically), someone seeking to bridge that gap will have to race back and forth to unify them.


     An alternative explanation for the need for chasing is the unnaturalness of peace.  Peace for Maharal means the distance among disputants has been bridged and unity has been created.  Maharal insists, however, that true peace - a situation of unity and mutual connection - is a Divine phenomenon, not a natural one.  For Maharal, absorbing some Divine element always requires chasing for Maharal and connects to our general search for the Divine in human endeavors, as we will describe in a moment.


     Beyond the search for peace among people is the striving to bring people closer to Torah.  Part of any attempt in this direction, Maharal notes, must be a feeling of love for the people receiving one's ministration.  It is not fully possible to bring peace among people or guide them back to Torah observance unless the person attempting to weild influence actually loves the people themselves.  [This reminds me of a notion that I mentioned in last year's Rosh Hashana sermon, that Alcoholics Anonymous members look for others to help because of their own need.  The founders of AA, who realized this, looked for a third person because they felt it to be true that they themselves would not manage to stay sober without sharing their ideas with others.  Maharal is really going one step further:  he is not saying that it is enough to try to bring peace among others because of our personal needs.  Rather, one should strive for peace out of a love and concern for those who either are arguing or are not as Torah-observant.]




     Moving beyond just explaining the words of the Mishna, Maharal says that these activities all require a person of modesty and humility.  A person with a strong concern for himself will be unable to sublimate his wants and rights to focus on the goal of bringing two disputants closer together.


     This precludes the ba'al serara (person who weilds power), whom we met in earlier mishnayot, from adopting the path of Aharon because the ba'al serara generally seeks to further his own power instead of helping others and following their needs. [This may be why Maharal thinks that Moshe Rabbenu also could not have performed Aharon's functions among the Jewish people.  While Moshe is described as humble, he was undeniably a person of power as well.]





He used to say:  he who seeks renown loses his reputation; he who does not increase [his Torah learning] decreases; he who does not learn [or teach, perhaps] deserves death; and he who exploits the crown of Torah shall fade away.




     The recognition that serara stands in opposition to fulfilling Hillel's goals explains the connection between this Mishna and the next.  While Maharal cites the Rambam's interpretation of "negid shema avad shemei (one who attains fame will lose it)," Maharal reads it instead as "for one who seeks fame, his name is 'avad,'" meaning that one who seeks fame will bring loss to himself by virtue of that search. 


     For Maharal, the physical is a world of cessation and stopping, and it all keeps going because of the Divine. Continuity, like peace, is therefore a Divine notion.  People's lives only continue by virtue of their connection to the Divine, a connection forged by Torah.  People who end that connection by ceasing to learn Torah lose the ability to continue their lives and deserve to die young.  People who do not learn at all go one step beyond losing a connection; they are presumed to stand in opposition to Torah, an attitude deserving of death.




The last clause, "u-deishtamesh be-taga halaf," is generally taken to mean that if one uses the Torah for inappropriate purposes, one will pass away from this world. In this connection, Maharal quotes a Talmudic tale according to which R. Tarfon was kidnapped and in his anguish cried out, "Oy le-Tarfon (Woe is Tarfon)!"  The kidnapper, recognizing the name and realizing whom he had abducted, put R. Tarfon down and ran away. 


For the rest of his life, the story goes, R. Tarfon bemoaned his inappropriate use of his fame as a Torah scholar for personal reasons. Perhaps because of R. Tarfon's continued anguish over his conduct, Maharal assumes that misusing Torah would lead to a worse punishment than just halaf (passing from the world).  He therefore prefers the interpretation of Resh Lakish, that taga means talmidei chakhamim, wise men, and that it is impermissible to use such people for our own personal needs, since they represent Torah and its ideas.



In the coming mishnayot, we will have to see how Maharal connects all of these lessons to the issue of machloket.  So far, he has mentioned that ahavat shalom means trying to reduce dispute, and is an essential part of a priest's function.  In addition, the ba'al serara, the person concerned with power, is unlikely to be able to serve as a unifier of people.  As with Torah study, those who wish seek unity require humility and the willingness to accept others as they are, rather than imposing themselves.  See you next week.