02 May The Great Treasure of Pirkei Avos
At this time of the year, Klal Yisroel breaks out one of its national treasures: the Mishnayos of Pirkei Avos. This anthology of select ethical teachings, transmitted to us by our gigantic teachers, presents us with a truly great opportunity to achieve personal excellence.
The name Pirkei Avos is perplexing. Names such as Sefer HaMidos (A Compendium of Character Traits) or Hilchos Deios (Laws of Proper Jewish Attitudes) spring to the mind as more descriptive titles. Yet the name Pirkei Avos, Chapters of Our Fathers, reveals many secrets about this masechta (tractate).
The many parents who read this column are charged with the duties of educating their youth. After all, the posuk tells us, “Shma beni musar avicha, v’al titosh Toras imecha — Listen my son to the lessons of your father, and don’t turn from the teachings of your mother.” Wow! That’s a big expectation upon us. Where is the guidebook to direct us in how to teach our children?
Wallah! We have Pirkei Avos – a syllabus and full curriculum for parents on how to mold their children into well rounded and refined Torah human beings. Thus, it is literally described as “Chapters for Fathers,” replete with lessons about humility and generosity, smiles and self-control.
This title also teaches us how to view our ethical mentors correctly. It is quite natural to dislike those who criticize and rebuke you. After all, nobody likes to be dressed down. Thus, a Mashgiach might not be popular among certain students and a Rav might not sometimes win many friends. Yet the name Pirkei Avos impresses upon us that the Sages, who imbue into us lessons of character and ethical behavior, should be loved by us like a father. For, when we follow their advice and pay attention to their criticism, they actually give us life in the World to Come. Thus, they are our fathers for eternity. In this vein, the next time your knee-jerk reaction is to be upset that the Rabbi is once again having a tirade about something, stop and think that perhaps he might actually be giving the priceless gift of a greater eternity.
We learn this awesome collection in the springtime precisely when our physical inclinations are budding and arousing. Added to this is the fact that, during the days of counting sefira, we commemorate the climb of spiritual refinement that we accomplished when we left Mitzrayim. Sefira recalls how we rose from the forty-ninth degree of tumah (impurity) to the pinnacle and zenith of Har Sinai. We too, when learning how to achieve the triple pursuit of Torah, Divine Service, and Kindness to Others, are attempting to climb the same ladder that our ancestors climbed so successfully.
It is a shame that many do not open up a Pirkei Avos with a sense of thirst and exhilaration. Perhaps, if we would keep it in a glass case, and charge ten dollars per minute for a peek inside, people would better appreciate its value. Its lessons on how to balance our lives and how to juggle our priorities are indeed priceless and eternal.
Here is one reason why more people do not take advantage of its life enhancing treasures. Almost all of us have read superficially its teachings over and over again. And therefore, unfortunately, too many people think of Pirkei Avos as ‘old hat.’ Or, to put it another way, we’ve ‘Been there; done that.’ This is a terrible shame for, as we grow wiser with experience, we can mine many new and profound lessons from these teachings. My present recommendation for people who want to be intellectually challenged and spiritually improved from these ancient insights is to find a new commentary that you have not studied before. Drink from its words of wisdom with spiritual excitement! The ArtScroll Maharal on Pirkei Avos and collections of Gerrer teachings are but two examples that spring immediately to the mind. Of course, Reb Irving Bunim’s classic, Ethics From Sinai, is a wonderful companion if you haven’t as yet enjoyed it.
To get the most out of your Pirkei Avos experience, after learning a Mishna, ask yourself, ‘Is this the way that I would have viewed this subject?’ If not, study how you should change your view on the issue. This exercise then becomes a grand opportunity to improve your outlook on life.
May all of us, with the help of Hashem, merit to study and embrace the ideology of Pirkei Avos and, in that merit, be zoche to wonderful Torah blessings.