Ethics – Now & Then 3 – Avot 1:3-4

Avot 1:3 Antigonus, of Socho, received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He was accustomed to say: Be not as servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving [even a token of] reward, but rather, be like servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving reward; and the fear of Heaven should be upon you.

Antigonus (2nd Century BCE) took over the position of leadership from Shimon Ha’Tzaddik . His focal teaching stressed that while we believe there will be a reward for obeying God’s commands, and punishment for sinning against Him, we should not allow this to be the primary motivation for our actions.

An interesting note in rabbinic literature illustrates how a point taken out of context can lead to great error. This teaching of Antigonus’, that one should not serve God in the hopes of a reward, was misapplied by two of his students who extended it to mean that there is no life after death. Consequently, one of these, Tzadok, is said to have founded the Sadducees – a sect of Judaism that denied resurrection of the dead and emphasized the reward of earthly material wealth. One may surmise that this eventually led to, or at least largely contributed to, later greed and corruption evidenced in the Temple leadership.

…be like servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving reward;

The premise emphasized by Antigonus was that a mitzvah, or good deed, should be motivated by love, to please God; as a lover does something for his or her beloved without consideration for what s/he will get in return. When one acts for reward, the aim is to benefit oneself. When the beloved is the focus, the deed is performed in simplicity and grace, in an attempt to bring joy to the other.

Rabbi Twerski, a modern-day Torah scholar and psychologist, makes an observation on motivation that is worth considering. He points out that “reward and punishment are essentially juvenile motivations.”[1] One uses them to teach small children. When they are disobedient, a scolding or even a spanking reinforces that what they have done is unacceptable behavior and will be detrimental to themselves and/or others. He recalls that as a child he was bribed to go to the dentist with the promise of a comic book after the visit. As he matured he realized that taking care of his teeth was not to satisfy his parents but was ultimately for his own good. Rules were based on their care and love for him.

This concept is simply and beautifully described by Ellyn Sana, in her small devotional book, Grace:
As children, we probably felt sometimes as though rules had no purpose but to make us miserable.
We didn’t always understand that our parents’ love was behind their rules.
As adults, we often have the same attitude towards God’s rules.
We feel as though a life of sin might be easier, more fun.
But instead, it’s just the opposite.
God always knows what will give us joy.
His rules are designed to make us shine.

…and the fear of Heaven should be upon you.

“Fear of Heaven” is another way of saying reverential awe of the majesty of God. This ‘fear’ is what one should maintain at the core, even as one grows in loving and intimate relationship with Him. The same concept is expressed in human relationships. A husband and wife, for example, need to grow in respect of the other even as their love grows. It also is inherent in the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “You shall honor your father and your mother.” We know that our earthly parents are not perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect; nevertheless, due to the fact that they partnered with God in giving one life, they are worthy of a child’s respect.

It is a mistake to consider closeness with our Father as an excuse for laxity in obeying His commandments. Jesus said, “I call you friends/yedidim” (Jn. 15:15). If this, unfortunately, would cause one to relate to the Father, as “our Buddy in Heaven” it inevitably would lead to a loss of “awe” and to taking excessive liberties. Verse 14 has the qualifier, “…if you do the things which I command you.”

The root of yedidim is yad, hand. Yedid (friend) reflects yad, yad , which means “hand in hand”. God, in love, reaches out His mighty, gracious hand of Salvation to us in His Son Yeshua and we can gratefully, lovingly and in great awe take hold and be drawn into His very Presence. What a cause for eternal, awesome wonder. Yeshua then expresses the goal of his teaching for his friends: “…that you may love one another” (Jn.15:17). If we have taken hold of His hand, our other hand will be extended in love to one another.

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Avot 1:4 Yossei ben Yo’ezer, of Tzeredah, and Yossei ben Yochanan, of Jerusalem, received the tradition from them.

Yossei ben Yo’ezer, of Tzeredah, says: Let your house be a meeting place for sages (Torah teachers); you shall become dusty in the dust of their feet; and you shall drink their words with thirst.

After Anitgonus came a change in the structure of leadership. Rather than one person carrying all the authority and responsibility for the people, the position was shared between two. They were given the titles of Nasi (literally, ‘prince’ or president) and Av Beit Din (literally ‘father of the court’, or chief judge).

The first of the zugot, or pairs, were both named Yossei, a derivative of Yosef, Joseph. Yossei, the son of Yo’ezer, was from a priestly family in Tzeredah, a town in the tribal area of Ephraim, and Yossei the son of Yochanan was a Jerusalemite. Yossei ben Yo’ezer was renowned for his piety and learning and was the first to be appointed to the position of Nasi. Yossi ben Yochanan served with him as Av Beit Din. He was the chief judge in any legal matters and presided over the Sanhedrin in the absence of the Nasi.

Yossei ben Yo’ezer said, Let your house be a meeting place for sages…

It was considered an honor and a blessing for a respected sage and teacher to enter and spend time in one’s home; for it to be a “meeting place for sages”. When a godly sage was present it was appreciated that one would learn as much from his actions as from his words.

On wider application, one should aim to fill one’s home with Torah/Bible study and students of the Word in order that it may be filled with an atmosphere of godly Kingdom-conversation. One commentator compares this to a perfumery. Simply by entering and spending time there one would absorb some of the sweet fragrance.

…you shall become dusty in the dust of their feet;

In the time of the Sages, the rabbi or teacher would sit on a chair or bench and the students would sit on the floor around him. Teaching, however, was not only confined to scholars in study halls or school classrooms. As we see with Yeshua, rabbis taught in the Temple precincts and, as itinerant teachers, would travel from town to town and teach the wider populace. In his day the study of Torah and related teachings was a national pastime!

In Genesis 32:25, the Hebrew word vaye’avek, wrestled, is from the same root as avak, dust.[2] If one wrestles on the ground, dust is stirred up. In the same way, one should study and “wrestle” with the Word – discuss, question, debate vigorously. When it is done with respect and “for the sake of Heaven” one need not be afraid to raise some ‘dust’.

As an itinerant teacher, we see Yeshua teaching on hillsides in the Galilee, at the shore of the lake, in the local synagogues and in the homes of friends, as with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. Also in cases such as that of Zacchaeus the tax collector in Jericho (Lk. 19). Mary of Bethany presents a classic and beautiful illustration of a disciple sitting at the feet of her teacher in a home setting and also, as Yossi ben Yo’ezer states in this verse, drinking in his words thirstily (Lk.10:39).

…and you shall drink their words with thirst.

The psalmist describes this longing well: “As a deer pants for water from flowing streams, so my soul thirsts for You, O God” (Ps.42:1). The prophet Isaiah calls to those seeking after God, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…” (55:1) Water is life! In the following verses of the chapter, Isaiah clarifies that the words that go forth from the LordYHWH – are the life-giving food and water; the sustenance that delights and brings peace and joy.

A significant connection is made in the gospels with ‘living water’ and Yeshua – the Torah incarnate, the Word made flesh. In John’s account of Yeshua’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well in Shechem (Jn.4), he recognizes her spiritual thirst and offers her a drink of living water. This analogy, and the life and refreshing she indeed experiences in her spirit, opens her eyes to the truth of who he is – the promised Messiah of God. As a result many people of her village receive the water of eternal life. To taste of this water and to know the life it brings, causes one continually to remain close to the Source and to drink of it gratefully and joyfully with an eternal “thirst” that nothing else can satisfy.

Interestingly, in Orthodox Judaism one says a blessing in gratitude to God before drinking any beverage, whether one is thirty or not. The only exception is water. The blessing is recited only if one is thirsty, when the water is truly appreciated. Nothing gratifies like a long drink of cool water when one is tired, hot and really thirsty! We should experience the same satisfaction and appreciation whenever we study the Word of God that brings life and refreshment to our spirit.

 

Endnotes:

1. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Visions of the Fathers; 21

2. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 1; 52

 

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