Ethics Now & Then 58 – Avot 4:7

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Avot 4:7   Rabbi Tzadok said: Do not separate yourself from the
                 community; [when serving as a judge] do not act as a lawyer;
                 do not make the Torah a crown for self-glorification, nor a
                 spade with which to dig. So, too, Hillel used to say: He who
                 exploits the crown [of Torah for personal benefit] shall fade
                 away. From this you derive that whoever seeks personal benefit
                 from the words of Torah removes his life from the world.

Rabbi Tzadok said:

Rabbi Tazadok lived at the time of the Second Temple. His concern for the fate of the Jewish people and the holiness of the Temple was so great that, it is said, he fasted daily for forty years to prevent the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the assimilation of the people into the pagan Hellenistic culture. This caused his health to suffer and he became very weak and ill. Despite the frailty of his physical condition, he was very highly honored for his piety and wisdom. After Jerusalem fell and the Temple indeed was destroyed, he accompanied Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai to Yavneh, where he presided as a judge in the rabbinic court. Most of his teachings and rulings were in accord with the School of Hillel and he seriously applied both Hillel’s dictum, together with that of Yehudah ben Tabbai’s also quoted here, to his own life.

Do not separate yourself from the community; [when serving as a judge] do not act as a lawyer…

This is a repetition of Hillel’s teaching in Avot 2:5 together with Yehudah ben Tabbai’s in Avot 1:8. Repetition usually is employed for the purpose of emphasis, or as a reminder of important precepts. In this context of the Second Temple period, when Jews were absconding to Roman society, separation from the community displayed a negative motivation. When the wider community is suffering, unless one’s life is directly threatened, it is considered a grave sin to extricate oneself from the general plight in order to be more comfortable. Rabbi A. Twersky gives an example from the book of Ruth.[1] Naomi’s husband was a wealthy landowner and the family could afford to move to ‘greener pastures.’ However, he and his sons died prematurely after they chose to leave their community in Bethlehem when it was suffering a famine, rather than to remain and help to make a positive difference there.

As a judge himself, Rabbi Tzadok emphasized the importance of not acting as a lawyer when passing judgment on a case. In other words, when judging a matter between two parties strive to remain impartial until evidence is given. Jewish law, however, does encourage the sitting judge to intervene ( and help to “open the mouth of the speechless”) if one of the parties appears victimized and is too weak or helpless to present an effective case for him or herself.[2]

…do not make the Torah a crown for self-glorification, nor a spade with which to dig.

This is a grave warning to scholars and teachers of the Word of God to not deliberately aim to derive honor from one’s knowledge and erudition. All glory and honor belong to God alone. The Scriptures should always be revered as a source of inspiration and guidance, a fount of God’s constant and living truth and revelation, and never as a “tool” to be manipulated for selfish gain.

So, too, Hillel used to say: He who exploits the crown [of Torah] for personal benefit shall fade away. From this you derive that whoever seeks personal benefit from the words of Torah removes his life from the world.

Exploitation of God’s Word is connected with the motivation of the perpetrator. Is the motivation to serve the Father in His Kingdom or is it to gain personal financial benefit and power? Initially, those who served in the Temple or who were students and teachers of Torah were financially compensated and “…drew their wages from the Temple coffers.”[3] Thus, as the Sforno commentary observes, Rabbi Tzadok’s verse in the context of Temple times “…can only apply to one who uses the Torah to feed his ego, not his physical needs.”[4] 11 Chronicles 31:4 instructs to “…give their portion to the priests and Levites that they might adhere fully to the Torah of HaShem,” indicating that those who served would not need to engage in further outside work in order to physically support themselves.

Yeshua pointed out how the motivation of any giving is important when, in Matthew chapter 6, verses 1-4, he used the illustration of the rich hypocrites who make a show of their positions and generosity in order to be seen and praised by others. “Truly,” he said, “they have received their reward.” Yeshua always stressed in his teaching how one’s only motivation for giving, or doing any good deed, should be to please the Father. If we are to learn from Yeshua and always trust his gracious enabling and look to please our Father in Heaven by doing His will, our righteous actions will become an unconscious habit and ‘your left hand won’t know what your right hand is doing’! However, as he assures, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” in ways that He knows will bring the greatest blessing, both here in this world and for eternity.

Star of David ENTPAUSE and REFLECT

In Western society (and in many churches) great emphasis is placed on the individual. But God desires a community. In what ways does our faith only work in community? Are we the community our Father calls us to be?

 

Footnotes:

1. Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky, M.D., Visions of the Fathers, 215
2. Joe Bobker, Pirkei Avos, 87
3. Ketubot 105a
4. Sforno commentary on Pirkei Avot, 112

 

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