Ethics Now & Then 89 – Avot 5:17

Pirkei Avot 5:17

There are four types of behavior among those who go to the Beit Midrash, the House of Study: He who goes and does not act, attains reward for attending; he who acts but does not go, attains reward for action; he who goes and acts, is pious, a chassid; he who neither goes nor acts is wicked.

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There are four types of behavior among those who go to the Beit Midrash, the House of Study:

Amongst the four described who “go to the place of study” are two who, in fact, do not go at all. In every Jewish community a ‘center’ or synagogue is established that is comprised of both a ‘House of Prayer’ – Beit Tefillah – and a ‘House of Study’ – Beit Midrash. The former is a sanctuary where the community gathers for prayer, services and celebrations. The latter is a quiet place for systematic study of the Torah and Talmud, which usually is equipped with a comprehensive library. Both are available for all in the community. However, as the Sages point out in this verse, not everyone avails themselves of the facilities.

He who goes and does not act, attains reward for attending;

Among those who do attend the synagogue and study hall there invariably are those who do not engage in heartfelt prayer or fully participate in the services. Even if they attend the Study Hall, they may not concentrate on the teaching or may simply fall asleep over the books. Even if this person absorbs some knowledge he does not act on it. Nevertheless, simply by making the effort to be there, the Sages offer that he will be blessed by God. Even if it be on a subconscious level, the age-old melodies, the words of prayer, and the atmosphere of holiness that hopefully accompanies these, will impress themselves in his spirit.

On the other hand, there are those who greatly desire to pray and worship with the congregation and to study and learn Torah but there may be practical reasons they are not able to do so. Their work hours may not afford the time to attend regular study, or they may live at a great distance from the Synagogue and the Study Hall. In this case, the Sages say: “…if someone engages in Torah study for its own sake even one day in the year, Scripture accords him merit as if he devoted all year to it.”*

…he who acts but does not go, attains reward for action;

An individual may prefer to pray sincerely at home and to study alone as well. His actions, in accord with what he learns, may be exemplary and righteous. For this he will gain reward. However, he is losing much. Throughout the Scriptures a stress is placed on community and interaction with others. In Jewish tradition, in order to qualify as a true prayer service, a minimum quorum of ten needs to be present – a minyan. Then prayer will be especially powerful and effective. As the Sages say, “When [at least] ten pray, the Sh’chinah, the Divine Presence, is with them.”**

If it is difficult to join others for study, as noted in the section above, it is praiseworthy to study alone. In ancient times books were not available and all learning was transmitted orally; therefore, in order to learn, one needed to attend a place of study to hear from a teacher. Today, as well as printed and audio material, the Internet offers helpful opportunities to participate in good teaching and much can be learned. On the other hand, a significant aspect of learning God’s Word is satisfied by hearing and observing scholars and teachers, by the association with fellow students, and by participating in questions and discussions. The absence of this interaction will remain a loss in a person’s life. Whenever possible, some form of group study should be enjoyed.

…he who goes and acts, is pious, a chassid; 

We read in Exodus how, after Moses instructed the Israelites regarding the procedure for leaving Egypt, “…the Israelites went and did as the Lord had commanded.” The Midrash comments: “This indicates that they received reward for going and reward for doing.”***

The pious person is described here as a chassid, from the word chessed – lovingkindness. He lovingly interacts with his community and with others. He attends the House of Study, even if he is an advanced scholar, in order to engage with and to encourage the younger students. He, as Irving Bunim well describes, builds “in kindness a bridge of communication and illuminating guidance to the next generation.”**** The chassid is prepared to go the extra mile in the study and learning of Torah, in order to do all that is pleasing to the Lord.

…he who neither goes nor acts is wicked.

This person may be living well, in accord with the surrounding secular culture, but may be totally removed from and ignorant of the Word of God given at Sinai; the Scriptures that were written and transmitted faithfully over subsequent generations. Of such, the Talmud says: “…without the Torah to nurture his spirit, he is not living at all.”***** He has removed himself from the spiritual environment and will remain far from it so as to not be influenced by it. Sadly, his children will suffer the loss too. The blessings of Shabbat and the riches only found in relationship with our Creator, and in the knowledge of His Word and ways, are rejected without any undertsanding of the depths of their meaning and value.

True learning is a life-long commitment and requires a conscious application in one’s life of what one is learning. The only way to gain wisdom is by testing what we have learned against the learning of others. We need one another as we journey on this continuing quest for truth and understanding.

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Footnotes:

* Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 5b
** Irvng Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol., 3,  quoting T.B. Brakhoth 6a
*** Exodus 12:28, M’chilta
****Irvng Bunim, Ethics from Sinai Vol., 3, 173
***** Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b

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