Ethics – Now & Then 16 – Avot 1:17-18

Avot 1:17 Shimon his son says: All my days I have been raised among
                 the Sages and I found nothing better for oneself than silence;
                 not study, but practice is the main thing;
                 and one who talks excessively brings on sin.

Shimon his son says: All my days I have been raised among the Sages and I found nothing better for oneself than silence; not study, but practice is the main thing…

As a son of Gamliel and a great grandson of Hillel, thus growing up in the presence of the Sages, we can understand why Shimon believed that silence was a wise policy. In his contact with the leadership of the time he may well have observed those who were brilliant scholars and debaters of Torah but did not live their lives accordingly, hence his emphasis in this verse that “…not study, but practice is the main thing.” He considered that even more important than the learning of Torah is the doing of it.

This proves to be a constant deliberation in every generation. The Talmud records a famous debate between two illustrious rabbis, Tarfon and Akiva; with Tarfon holding that deeds are greater and Akiva that study is greater. The wise conclusion finally reached was that “…study is greater, for it leads to deeds” (Kiddushin 40b). This satisfied all concerned as it brilliantly balances the need for both. Our study and learning of God and His ways should be constant and our deeds should be in harmony; one reflecting the other.

…and one who talks excessively brings on sin.

Many people, such as teachers, actors, lawyers and, dare I say, politicians, of necessity talk more than others due to their occupation. Even in these cases “too much” talk can result in sins such as false promises, providing misleading information, lies and dishonesty. The excessive form of talk generally regarded as sinful, however, is that of lashon ha’ra – gossip or, literally, an ‘evil tongue.’ Maimonides’ commentary on this verse expresses that lashon ha’ra refers to “speech that disparages others, even when it is true and does not actually constitute slander.” [1]

This would have been an immediate and urgent issue for Shimon ben Gamliel for the Second Temple was destroyed in his time and the Talmud records that the destruction largely was due to the hateful lashon ha’ra indulged in by many in positions of spiritual leadership. The Sages considered lashon ha’ra to be deadlier than the sword because “…it can be spoken in Rome and kill in Syria; spoken in Syria and kill in Rome” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1).

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Avot 1:18 Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: The world endures on
                 three things – justice [din], truth [emet] and peace
                 [shalom] as it is said: “Truth and the verdict of peace are
                 you to adjudicate in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Rabban Shimon quoted in verse 18 is the grandson of the Shimon ben Gamliel of the previous verse. As we see, he is honored with the title of Rabban. His son, Yehudah haNasi, compiled the Mishnah, including Pirkei Avot. The first chapter closes with his powerful maxim, directly connected with Zechariah 8:16. In accord with Deut. 16:18, “the gates” of a city traditionally were the places the elders, or sages, of the city would gather to offer judgments on issues brought to them by the people, “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates which YHWH your God gives you, …and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” The term ‘within your gates’ indicates ‘within your jurisdiction.’ (E.g., Deut. 32:12). The prophet Jeremiah warned Israel that the people of the “kingdoms of the north…shall come and they shall set up every one his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem…and against all the cities of Judah,” thus claiming sovereignty and rule over the City of God and His Land (Jer.1:15).

Rabban Shimon’s maxim also reflecs the saying of Shimon haTzaddik in Avot 1:2, “The world depends on three things: on Torah study, on the service [or worship, of God] and on kind deeds [mitzvot].” It is considered that verse 2 describes the three things for which man was created – to come to know God in intimate relationship through the Revelation and study of His Word and in loving and serving Him and one another in kindness. Verse 18, on the other hand, offers the things that cause mankind to endure; they are the “…spiritual forces by which the social order is held together and civilization is sustained.” [2]

The welfare of humanity, on both an interpersonal and a wider social level, depends on the implementation of justice, adherence to truth and upholding the value of peace. When the governing body of a country or nation has in place a constitution of good and just laws, and judicial courts that fairly administer them, the result will be peace and social order in that society. Historically, we can appreciate how in Western democracies, when government is based on biblical Judaeo-Christian values, societies do indeed prosper and flourish in peace. When corruption enters and governments become increasingly “lawless” or “Bible-less” disintegration and violence also set in.

Emet, truth, in the biblical context, embraces the whole concept of truth-telling, including the principles of honesty, avoidance of deceit and keeping one’s promises. As well as in national and international communication, truth is an essential component in personal relationships. Lies destroy trust and effective cooperation and thus undermine and damage any relationship.

Very often, interestingly, justice and truth seem to conflict with the goal of peace. “Peace at any price” is not usually in the best interests of anyone concerned. When two people or groups, or even nations, are in serious dispute and yet both genuinely are aiming for peace it can be reached when a resolution is reached that both parties can safely and satisfactorily agree on. Enforcing a strictly legal solution that leaves one party feeling unjustly injured and angry will not engender true and lasting peace.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 6b, recalls a debate as to when mediation and compromise are appropriate and when a strictly legal judgment is called for. Rabbi Eliezer insisted that justice should always rule over arbitration. He says, “Let justice pierce through the mountain” – indicating that it is preferable to strive for strict justice no matter the obstacle or the cost. Rabbi Yehudah ben Korha argued, in reference to Rabban Shimon in verse 18, that “…when people turn to courts of law, no peace results, and when there is already peace, people don’t turn to courts. What is that kind of justice in which peace abides? We must say: arbitration.” [3]

The debate echoes the voices of Moses, Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher of God’s Torah received on the mountain, and that of Aaron, Rodef Shalom, the pursuer of peace. The debate of the Rabbis ultimately concluded that, as opposed to always applying the strict “letter of the law,” offering compassionate mediation and taking exceptions and personal circumstances into consideration is always meritorious. No clear point was resolved, however, as to when it is wise and necessary to withhold mediation. This would depend on each individual case and an important and indispensable factor would be adherence to truth.

Yeshua describes the balance of justice and mercy perfectly in his parable of the rich master who compassionately forgave a servant his debt. Later, when the same servant refused to forgive another servant who owed him a debt, the master revoked his decision and had the servant imprisoned (Matt.18:23-25). This is a powerful reminder that our Father’s mercy triumphs over justice and, just as we have been forgiven much, so should we willingly and fully extend forgiveness to others.

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Conclusion of Chapter 1

Rabbi Chananiah ben Akashia says: The Holy One, Blessed is He, wished to confer merit upon Israel; therefore He gave them the Torah and mitzvot in abundance, as it is said:
“HaShem desired, for the sake of His [and Israel’s] righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious” (Isaiah 42:21).

The tradition arose to read this excerpt from the Talmud tractate of Makkot to mark the conclusion of each chapter of Pirkei Avot. The message conveyed is that: “Torah study and mitzvah performance are a Divinely conferred privilege.” [4] We are reminded that the commands of Torah, which may seem heavy duty at times, are gifts given by our Father for our own eternal reward and benefit.

 

Footnotes:

1. William Berkson, Pirke Avot; 48
2. Artscroll Mesorah Series, Pirkei Avos; 14
3. William Berkeson, Pirke Avot; 51
4. Artscroll, Mesorah Series, Pirkei Avos; 15

 

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